Former U.S. Speaker of the House and Massachusetts titan Thomas “Tip” O’Neill famously said that, “All politics is local.” Perhaps no greater demonstration of that slogan of democracy exists than the Town Meetings that occur in municipalities across our commonwealth. On Tuesday, May 7, the town of Swampscott demonstrated the power of grassroots democracy and the political outcomes that can be achieved when the facts get directly to the people without the clutter, noise, distraction, and dissembling of modern politics.
Swampscott’s Board of Selectmen sought to have the Town Meeting adopt a home rule article to seek approval by the state Legislature to change the town employees’ pension plan from a defined benefit to a defined contribution plan. It is no secret that after a 30-year effort to diminish unions’ strength in the private sector, recent years have seen public employees receive the brunt of political and media attacks for having decent wages, benefits and the right to collectively bargain. There is an old saying from times of famine in which a neighbor looks next door and sees his neighbor’s cow. The neighbor’s cow feeds that family while his own family starves. Rather than seek his own cow or work together with the neighbor to sustain his family, the man simply says, “Look at his cow. I don’t have such things. I hope his cow dies.” That is what national attitudes have been toward public employee pensions, benefits, and collective bargaining rights. Until May 7 in Swampscott.
After a concerted information and public education campaign, the voters of Swampscott spoke overwhelmingly in support of defined benefit pensions for the public employees who serve their community each day. Armed with the facts and an intelligent, localized debate about Swampscott’s pension system, the home rule article to change to defined contribution retirement plans was handily rejected. The people of Swampscott spoke loudly and clearly in favor of a dignified, secure and fair retirement for its public employees. And that message should reverberate around the commonwealth and the nation.