The concept of workers having security in their older years as a way to honor their contributions goes back centuries. As early as the Roman Empire, governments provided pensions for workers who administered public programs. In the United States, pensions for retired and disabled military personnel predate the signing of the U.S. Constitution.
According to Lee A. Craig, a North Carolina State University professor, most American public-sector workers were not offered pensions until the first decades of the 20th century, with teachers, firefighters and police officers given retirement plans as part of their compensation. By 1930, public-sector pension plans were relatively widespread while private-sector pensions were only offered to about 10 percent of the workforce.
Today, more than 90 percent of public employees are covered by an employer-provided pension plan while less than half of private-sector workers are covered, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. Most experts attribute this to the erosion of union representation in the private sector. A 2005 study by the AFL-CIO found that union workers are far more likely than their non-union counterparts to have health and pension benefits.
Malcolm Gladwell’s The Risk Pool, published in The New Yorker outlines the battle fought in 1949 by Toledo, Ohio unions seeking to establish a regional pension plan for workers from various industries. The business owners were terrified by the proposal, worried that it would provide “too much organizing power for workers.” What resulted was an employer-provided pension plan that would serve as a model for companies throughout corporate America—the same model that has seen companies pull the rug out from under workers in recent years. Workers from various industries have seen their retirement security yanked away just when they needed it most.
Health and pension plans have always been seen as effective ways to attract and retain qualified workers. In the public sector, this continues to hold true, but private industry offers plans based on stock market performance, which provides little to no certainty.
Public employee pensions remain the last bastion of the belief that the lifetime contributions of workers should be honored and respected –and doing so relieves our nation of the scourge of poverty among the elderly. As private companies continue to look for ways to increase profits, public employees will no doubt continue to fight to protect the retirement security they were promised when they began their careers.