Benefits need protections E-mail
Written by Ron DeLord   

In the 1980s Australian state and territorial governments started slowly eliminating the defined pension benefits for public employees by “selling the unborn.” Employees hired after a certain date would receive less pension benefits than existing employees. While the unions protested, current employees did not want to lose or reduce their pensions to protect future employees. The die was cast and 25 years later there are few defined benefit pension plans open to new employees.

The impact on law enforcement is that an Australian male police officer works an average of 14 years and a female officer works on average seven years. Since there is no defined benefit after 20 to 30 years of service, these experienced officers take their superannuation (same as a 401K plan) and seek other employment at a younger age.

I have been warning American police unions for more than a year that local and state governments understand that the general public can be manipulated to resent public employees having health insurance and pension benefits that far exceed what they have. In the private sector, 91 percent of all employees are now at-will, and without a union contract. In fact, 50 percent of all private sector employees have no pension plan whatsoever.

The taxpayer is funding benefits for the public sector that they are not getting, and public employers and the media are feeding upon the widening disparity in benefits between the private and public sector. Traditionally, police unions have argued in the court of public opinion whenever public employers have attempted to reduce their benefits. And in the past the public has generally supported their police officers.

But the widening gap between private and public sector benefits, a slowing economy and the fear of a recession does not bode well for police unions who believe the general public will raise a hue and cry to save defined pension plans for police officers and other public employees. It has started slowly with attacks on pensions in California and it’s now escalating nationwide. The media has jumped on the bandwagon advocating for pension reform.

Local and state elected officials feel the political winds shifting away from public employees and their unions. Many police unions have already fallen and acquiesced to selling the unborn. More police unions will come to the crossroads in the next few years as the pressure mounts to make a decision: fight to retain a defined pension for all current and future employees and face perhaps a drastic reduction for all employees, or save the current employees at the expense of future employees.

This is a battle police unions cannot afford to lose and they cannot avoid. There are many arguments as to why police officers need a defined benefit pension and affordable health insurance. The recruiting and retention crisis cannot be contained if local and state governments reduce benefits.

There is plenty of evidence that two tier benefit schemes demoralize the workforce and divide the union into the “haves” and “have nots.”

Police unions need to know the facts, educate elected officials, the media and the public. The only sin is being unprepared for the battle ahead.

Ron DeLord is the executive director of the 16,000 member Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas (CLEAT) and has written extensively about the police labor movement and law enforcement profession.

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