Kentucky Teachers Are Protesting and Walking Off the Job to Save Their Pensions—And Winning

Michael Arria March 22, 2018

Teachers and students protest during a one-day strike outside of Oakland High School on April 29 in Oakland, Calif., after the city's School Board implemented a new contract that leaves teachers without a pay raise.

Thou­sands of teach­ers across Ken­tucky have protest­ed against pro­posed cuts to their pen­sion ben­e­fits in recent weeks, and last Wednes­day more than 60 of the state’s schools closed while their staff attend­ed a ral­ly at the capi­tol build­ing in Frank­fort. On the heels of the teach­ers’ strike in West Vir­ginia, Ken­tucky teach­ers are effec­tive­ly beat­ing back an attack on pub­lic work­ers — and they plan to con­tin­ue to fight.

The pro­posed cuts emerged from a months-long GOP polit­i­cal push. Last Octo­ber, Kentucky’s Repub­li­can Gov­er­nor Matt Bevin pushed an even more dra­con­ian plan, which he called Keep­ing the Promise,” aimed at sav­ing” the state’s pen­sion sys­tem. Bevin’s plan would have forced work­ers and teach­ers to enter into a 401(k)-type sys­tem and pay an extra 3 per­cent to access their retiree health ben­e­fits. Bevin intend­ed to call a spe­cial ses­sion to imple­ment the changes.

The governor’s plan was imme­di­ate­ly crit­i­cized by teach­ers and oth­er work­ers who would have been impact­ed by the changes, as well as by Demo­c­ra­t­ic law­mak­ers in the state. This is pure­ly a move tout­ed by ultra-con­ser­v­a­tive groups across the nation to pri­va­tize state ser­vices, remove a skilled state work­force and dri­ve down wages for our future edu­ca­tors,” said Ken­tucky Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty Chair Rep. San­nie Over­ly in a state­ment at the time.

Brent McKim, the pres­i­dent of the Jef­fer­son Coun­ty Teach­ers Asso­ci­a­tion (JCTA), told In These Times that resis­tance to the leg­is­la­tion devel­oped quick­ly as com­mu­ni­ty forums were orga­nized all over the state and leg­is­la­tors were invit­ed to attend.”

As a result of the back­lash, Bevin’s spe­cial ses­sion nev­er occurred.

But in Feb­ru­ary, Sen­ate Bill 1 was intro­duced to the leg­isla­tive ses­sion. Ken­tucky Repub­li­cans had scrapped the most con­tro­ver­sial ele­ments of Bevin’s plan — the 401(k) sys­tem and the 3 per­cent increase for ben­e­fits. But the bill still includes sig­nif­i­cant cuts for edu­ca­tors, slash­ing retired teach­ers’ year­ly cost-of-liv­ing rais­es from 1.5 per­cent to 1 per­cent, and using the mon­ey to fund the state’s pen­sion sys­tem. This change would remain in effect until the Ken­tucky Teach­ers’ Retire­ment Sys­tem was 90 per­cent fund­ed. As The Lex­ing­ton Her­ald-Leader has report­ed, if it took 20 years to reach 90 per­cent, that would mean a teacher who retires at the age of 59 and lives until the age of 83 would lose $65,019.

It wasn’t as bad as it was orig­i­nal­ly,” said McKim, but it was still unacceptable.”

Dur­ing a local radio inter­view on March 13, Bevin dis­missed protest­ing teach­ers as self­ish” and igno­rant,” com­par­ing them to peo­ple who hoard­ed rations dur­ing World War II. This would be like peo­ple hav­ing mass demon­stra­tions about, No I want my but­ter, I want my sug­ar, I’m going to keep all my steel and my rub­ber and my cop­per, and to heck with the rest of you peo­ple, you bet­ter keep giv­ing me mine,’” said Bevin. That’s what it is, it’s the most remark­able com­men­tary about who we are in mod­ern times. It’s just straight up about want­i­ng more than your fair share.”

After Bevin was wide­ly crit­i­cized for these com­ments, he released a Face­book video insist­ing that he has tremen­dous respect for those of you who are teach­ing.” He claimed that he nev­er intend­ed to cause hurt and plead­ed with work­ers to accept a pen­sion over­haul before all the mon­ey dries up.

In the video, Bevin esti­mat­ed that all the mon­ey would be tapped with­in 12 to 15 years. But advo­cates like Jason Bai­ley, the exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Ken­tucky Cen­ter for Eco­nom­ic Pol­i­cy, con­tend that Bevin’s num­bers are way off. The claim that the teach­ers’ plan is going to run out of mon­ey in 12 to 15 years is just false,” Bai­ley told Louisville Couri­er Jour­nal. The actu­ar­i­al analy­sis that was just put out shows that if we just fund the plan with­out any changes to ben­e­fits … it will improve, and in 15 years it will be about 73 per­cent funded.”

Even some crit­ics of Sen­ate Bill 1 read­i­ly admit that Kentucky’s over­all pen­sion sys­tem has major prob­lems. Ken­tucky has the worst-fund­ed pen­sions in the entire coun­try, as the state’s sys­tem is $31.2 bil­lion in debt.

How­ev­er, many say the mon­ey could eas­i­ly be made up by tax­ing cor­po­ra­tions rather than slash­ing from the pub­lic sec­tor. Tax reform is the answer,” Bri­an O’Neill, the spokesper­son for Ken­tucky Pub­lic Pen­sion Coali­tion, told In These Times. They are ready to slash ben­e­fits, but they won’t look at increas­ing tax­es. We lose bil­lions every year to tax sub­si­dies and cor­po­rate tax breaks.”

A 2017 study by Good Jobs First backs up O’Neill’s asser­tion. The inves­ti­ga­tion con­cludes that the total of Kentucky’s cor­po­rate sub­si­dies, offi­cial tax breaks and unof­fi­cial tax dodg­ing amounts to around $580 mil­lion annu­al­ly. The year­ly tax­pay­er cost for fund­ing the retire­ment ben­e­fits of pub­lic employ­ees is only about 69 per­cent of that num­ber. They say the sys­tem is unsus­tain­able,” said O’Neill. Well, this is part of that. The issue is real, but it’s a man­u­fac­tured crisis.”

McKim said that Ken­tucky teach­ers draw inspi­ra­tion from West Virginia’s strike, but explained that a statewide walk­out was just one tool in the tool­box.” He said teach­ers are not rul­ing out any option, but are cur­rent­ly com­mit­ted to apply­ing a full-court press” to law­mak­ers through­out the state. One of the cur­rent meth­ods of apply­ing this pres­sure is for teach­ers to protest out­side of Bowen Tire Com­pa­ny in Owens­boro. State Sen. Joe Bowen, who spon­sored Sen­ate Bill 1, is a part­ner in that busi­ness. In a radio inter­view on March 20, Bevin said those pro­test­ers had a thug mentality.”

Kentucky’s leg­isla­tive ses­sion ends on April 13, and even Repub­li­cans are admit­ting that the pen­sion over­haul prob­a­bly won’t get passed by then. The Senate’s major­i­ty Repub­li­cans spent March 9 dis­cussing the bill while pro­test­ers chant­ed out­side the cham­ber, A pen­sion is a promise!” and, You vote now, we vote lat­er!” When it was announced that the vote would be post­poned, the assem­bled teach­ers cheered. The votes were not there,” admit­ted GOP Sen. Tom Buford. They did­n’t have them. And I think it’s over for this ses­sion. Things got off to a slow start on this bill in Octo­ber, and boy, did it taper off fast.”

Michael Arria is the U.S. cor­re­spon­dent for Mon­doweiss. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @michaelarria.
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