PROVIDENCE â€” Thousands of unionized workers converged on the Statehouse Monday from all across Rhode Island for a â€śRally for Pension Security,â€ť railing against the pension reform legislation now before the General Assembly and booing and ridiculing General Treasurer Gina Raimondo and Gov. Lincoln Chafee, the plan's authors.
â€śTrust Chafee?â€ť Council 94, AFSCME President Michael Downey asked quizzically, mocking the campaign slogan used last year, many say with a big boost from unions. â€śI trust that by the time he's done, I won't have a pension, you won't have a pension. That's not the kind of trust I'll put in a politician.â€ť
â€śThey are looking for ideas to solve the unfunded liability,â€ť Downey told the throng as what had been a warm sunny day turned into a cool dark night and stage lights illuminated the speakers at the back portico of the Statehouse. â€śI suggest to you after I read about the money the treasurer is raking in (Raimondo recently reported having more than $300,000 in her campaign coffers at the end of the last fundraising quarter), maybe she can do it with her political aspirations. She seems to draw in a lot of money. Maybe she can fund it herself.â€ť
Repeating a charge made by union officials at recent legislative hearings that Raimondo artificially created a pension crisis by changing assumptions on how much the fund's investments will bring in and how long retirees will live to collect their pensions, Downey declared, â€śAfter all, she's the one who played around with the numbers to put us in the shape we're in. Our pension was all right until they played around with numbers.â€ť
Downey implored the unionist to contact their senators and representatives by e-mail, letters and phone calls, â€śand when you are done doing that, you know what I ask you to do? Do it again!â€ť
Citing Raimondo, Chafee and former Gov. Donald Carcieri, still a favorite whipping boy of unions nearly a year after leaving office, Frank Flynn, president of the RI Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals, said, â€śWealthy people are proposing to balance the budget on the backs of working people.
â€śAs we saw a year ago today, these candidates at election time were not shy about asking for your support, now it is your time to ask for theirs,â€ť Flynn said.
Among the printed signs that read â€śA Contract is a Contractâ€ť and â€śKeep the Promise. I Did,â€ť were handmade efforts such as the one with the green cartoon character that read â€śGina Raimondo is the Grinch Who Stole My Pensionâ€ť and another that said â€śShared Sacrifice Myâ€ť with a drawing of a donkey beneath it.
AFL-CIO President George Nee echoed several speakers at the two-hour rally when he said, despite claims by Raimondo and Chafee, â€śthis is not a math problem, it's a legal problem, it's a human rights issue, it's a political problem, but after everything is said and done, it's a problem affecting people, it's affecting you. It's not about numbers it's about people. It is unfair, it is unjust, it is immoral to turn it into a numbers problem.
â€śContracts have to mean something,â€ť Nee asserted. â€śWe have to make sure that the people who make the political decisions in this state understand what a contract means.
While the pension legislation that was the topic of the rally affects public employee unions, the government workers were joined by thousands of supporters from private sector unions.
James Riley, secretary-treasurer of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 328 proclaimed â€śWhen it comes to the concept of collective bargaining, there is no difference between the public sector and the private sector. Your fight is our fight. Your struggle is our struggle and your resolve is our resolve.â€ť
William McGowan of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2323 added, â€śIf they are going to take us on, they are in for the fight of our lives. We're going to stay with you as long as it takes. Corporate America and some political leaders are trying to take on working people. They are eliminating the middle class of this country. It is wrong. It is un-American. And we're going to stop it here.â€ť
Early comers to the event cheered as a contingent from Occupy Providence came marching up from Burnside Park to join the rally. They revved up the crowd with chants as large speakers blared out the Rolling Stones' â€śStreet Fighting Man,â€ť
Pat Houlihan, 71, a Providence schoolteacher who retired after 28 years on the job, said, â€śI do recognize that with a COLA (Cost Of Living Adjustment) on a freeze for 19 years, I'm not going to be around to collect it, and there are a lot of us in that situation.â€ť
Houlihan said, â€śthe dissolution of the middle class is happening. The 1 percent is gleeful that it's happening. We are the members of the 99 percent. We are members of your community, legislators, we are your neighbors. Make no mistake; this is class warfare.â€ť