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.
The Swampscott Patch reported that Lt. Thomas Stevens of the Swampscott Police Department spoke against the home rule article, rightly pointing out to his fellow residents that such a move would isolate the town and limit its ability to attract good candidates for public service in their community. After his union’s police officers worked with other public employee unions and supporters to educate their friends and neighbors, Hugh Cameron, president of the Massachusetts Coalition of Police and vice president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, remarked: “The people of Swampscott soundly defeated an attempt by the town to lessen pension and health benefits offered to employees via state law. This home rule article was nothing more than an attempt by the town to relieve themselves from paying previously owed debt and placing that burden squarely on the backs of the town’s hard-working employees. Pension liability payments were routinely deferred by cities and towns, which now show up as large amounts of unfunded liability. If the town had made these payments on time, there would be no need for the home rule article that was filed in Swampscott. The employees paid their share of contributions for their retirements and health care, it is time that the Town of Swampscott meets its obligation and stops trying to get out from underneath their responsibility by shifting the burden to its employees.”
That message should echo throughout public debates about the basic quality of life we are all seeking. Swampscott’s voters showed that working families — public and private sector, town employees and taxpayers — are all in it together, and can work together to ensure a decent quality of life earned through a fair deal for the work we all do to help society and our economy function.
All politics is, in fact, local. But sometimes the messages we send, in Swampscott’s case overwhelmingly, have global ramifications. For those working families hoping to secure a dignified and secure retirement for their lifetime of hard work, Swampscott’s message had better catch on.
Steven A. Tolman is president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO.