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Union leaders say labor’s done its share to help the state

March 18, 2011

Rhode Island faces an estimated $5 billion (or maybe $10 billion) in unfunded pension liability; billions more in unfunded retiree healthcare benefits; severe budget distress in cities like Providence and Central Falls; and ongoing structural deficits in the state budget. Faced with all this, two top union leaders say labor has done enough to be part of the solution.

RI AFL-CIO President George Nee says an improving economy is the answer to the current Rhode Island financial morass. Nee was joined by Michael Downey, president of ASCME’s Council 94, the largest state workers’ union, for a taping this morning of WPRI/WNAC-TV’s Newsmakers.

Nee and Downey both said the public’s view of the labor movement is important to them. But at a time when labor is being challenged by the likes of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, neither man volunteered specific steps that unions would or should take to cut the state’s structural deficit or long-term entitlement obligations.

Asked what labor should do to help solve Rhode Island’s financial problems, Nee responded by saying the state should bolster its revenue through economic development, possibly by adding a casino, container port, or other initiatives.

The union leaders agreed the state needs a plan for dealing with its massive unfunded pension liablity. But Nee said Governor Chafee’s plan for an added three percent pension contribution from teachers and state workers — which the administration says it can impose by statute — will take $40 million that might otherwise be spent in Rhode Island. He remains staunchly opposed to the increased contribution, and also to benefit cuts for retired public-sector employees.

Downey, who says he earned $36,000 last year as a 31-year plumber at URI, says union members have already paid a price through a series of pension changes in recent years, among other reductions. As an example, he  pointed to cuts in pay for union members made as part of an 2009 agreement with the Carcieri administration.

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