Lets Keep Politics Out of Our Pensions

Date Posted: 
Thursday, May 31, 2018
Sometimes it feels like working men and women are always under attack - from anti-union employers, from Washington, from Albany. Now, amid a concerted attack by climate change activists, Gov. Cuomo, and some of our elected leaders in the State Capitol are pushing a plan that could hurt the modest pensions of state and municipal workers across New York. As Chairman of theUtility Labor Council of New York, I can say that few, if any, of our more than 15,000 members would argue that man-made climate change is not real. Syracuse residents know first-hand how wild our weather can be -- and it seems like storms here and across the country are getting more severe and occurring more often.

It is true that we must find ways to deal with climate change, so we can leave our children and grandchildren a healthy planet, but the Governor's plan to divest state pension funds from fossil fuels within five years will hurt public employees, retirees, taxpayers, and working families all across our state. The Common Retirement Fund holds the assets of the New York State and Local Retirement System. It represents about 650,000 active state and local employees and 452,000 retirees, including our members. A recent report from Global Analytics Services, Inc. found that the Fund, which represents more than 1 million active members and retirees, would lose $188 million to $302 million over five years if forced to divest from fossil fuels. That is a loss that IBEW members simply can't afford. Additionally, the report noted that while environmental activists claim divestment can slow climate change, the evidence shows that approach would have little to no effect on slowing climate change.

Fortunately, our State Comptroller, Thomas DiNapoli, agrees that divestment is not the answer and he is studying more sensible ways of stakeholder engagement with the fossil fuel industry. Divesting fossil fuel holdings from the state's nearly $200 billion Common Retirement Fund and replacing those investments with lower-earning assets would come at a significant cost. It would force state and local governments to raise taxes or cut vital services to cover these costs. The people most impacted by higher taxes and service cuts would be New York's working families, like our members. Across the country, large public pension systems like the California Public Employees' Retirement System, have resisted calls from environmental lobbyists for total divestment from fossil fuels. And for good reason. They understand that public pensions are a right negotiated by state and municipal workers and retirees who have devoted their entire lives to serving the public and keeping the power on in our communities. If we begin to allow our elected officials to gradually use divestiture to drive their own political agenda, then what protections will working families have left? Our modest pensions cannot - and should not -- be used as a political experiment in the debate over climate change.

Ted Skerpon is Chairman of the Utility Labor Council of New York and is Business Manager of IBEW Local 97 based in Syracuse.

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