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Protecting Pensions: Victory in Vermont!

By Mary Ellen Flannery

It’s not just the fall foliage, powder slopes, and Cherry Garcia calling you to Vermont to teach and retire. It’s the huge victory in protecting and increasing pension benefits won this spring by the committed educators and leaders of Vermont-NEA.

Pension funds, just like your own savings account, took a beating in the recent economic crisis. That, plus declining tax revenues, has put them under the scrutiny of many state legislatures, which, quite frankly, seem all too willing to break their promises to public employees. In states across the country, your retirement is under attack.

The same was true in Vermont, where a hostile governor convened a state commission — without any educators or organized labor on it—to study the Vermont State Teachers’ Retirement System. Almost immediately, it demanded dramatic increases in employee contributions, an increase in retirement age, cuts to health benefits, and an eventual shift from a defined benefit plan, like a pension, to a defined contribution plan, like a 401K.

“It was really scary what they were proposing, this really draconian stuff,” said Vermont special education teacher Donna Waelter. 

But VT-NEA fought back. It quickly organized a spirited “Keep the Promise” campaign with a specific message to legislators and governors: “Keep your retirement promise to teachers.”

 

VT-NEA President Martha Allen (left) on a lobbying trip to the Vermont State Capitol.

Photo credit: Darren Allen

Through frequent emails from VT-NEA to members, every educator knew exactly what was happening and how they could help, said local president and art teacher Wendy Wells. In return, they fired off more than 5,000 emails to state legislators—almost one for every two members in the state—and they made them personal. “This is a small state. When you talk to your legislator, it’s your neighbor. They still have to look at you in the supermarket,” Waelter said.

At the same time, VT-NEA insisted on participating in the process—and offered good-faith assistance. “Our people did a lot of research and a lot of brainstorming, and really tried to be creative,” Wells said. “We said, ‘Here are the problem we have, what can we do about them? What do you need? How can we make this work for us—and for the state?’”

In the end, Vermont teachers won a stronger commitment from the state to preserve and fully fund their pension system. While their contribution grew slightly—not nearly as much as had been proposed—they also protected their retirement age and won new spousal health benefits. At the same time, they saved $15 million to cut the state’s deficit.

“Now they look at us with a favorable eye because we’ve saved them $15 million,” said VT-NEA President Martha Allen. “People are thrilled!"


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