LIBN: Protecting Public Pensions Protects All Working Families

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 business manager/financial secretary of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1049, I can say that few, if any, of our more than 4,000 members would argue that man-made climate change is not real.

Long Islanders 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.

Divesting fossil fuel holdings from the state’s $206 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 my members.

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 the Suffolk County Association of Municipal Employees 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, who has a fiduciary responsibility to achieve the highest returns possible for pensioners, agrees that divestment is not the answer and he is studying more sensible ways of stakeholder engagement with the fossil fuel industry.

Across the country, large public pension systems like the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, and major universities like Harvard, Yale and MIT, have resisted calls from students and 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?

One thing is clear. Our modest pensions cannot – and should not – be used as political bargaining chips in the debate over climate change.

Ronald Bauer is Business Manager & Financial Secretary of IBEW Local 1049 on Long Island.

This editorial appeared in the Long Island Business News.