DETROIT - "We have retirees who are in their eighties and nineties - are they supposed to get a job?" asked AFSCME retiree Rose Roots at a press conference and rally by Detroit's retirees reacting to the city's recent bankruptcy filing. Her union represents approximately 9,500 current city employees and 20,000 retirees.
She said city workers faithfully performed their duties and thought they'd have something at the end of 30 years. "We're not asking for a gift," she declared
The city's retirees are angry, and who could blame them? After giving decades of service, they are incensed that Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr is targeting their modest pensions, averaging $19,000 a year, in bankruptcy court. Those pensions are supposed to be protected by Michigan's constitution.
Auto mechanic Roger Rice worked on garbage trucks, summer and winter, for 38 years. He said the union understood the problems of the city and always gave concessions (four or five times) when asked. Rice ended his long career with bad knees, a bad back, and high blood pressure but, through it all, thought he'd have a modest pension for his efforts. Now, when he needs it, he's losing his health care.
"Now we need a concession and not an attack on our health," he said in response to Orr's plan to reduce their benefits.
"I feel betrayed," said Donald Smith, who worked 13 years at Detroit Receiving Hospital and 16 more doing parking enforcement, security and other jobs for the city. Often his work was made harder by short-staffing.
Smith said the employees stuck with it because they were told if they paid into the retirement fund there would be "something waiting" when they retired. "I'm retired and all I have is high blood pressure and arthritis," he said.
"I feel like this: if they can bail out the banks, they can bail us out," he added.
That feeling of sacrifices not being shared equally needs to be talked about, said Ed McNeil, special assistant to AFSCME Distinct Council President Albert Garrett. Although Gov. Rick Snyder spoke of "shared sacrifice" and everything was supposed to be "on the table," McNeil said, "we don't see everything on the table."
Example of items left off the table, he said, are the $650 million ($250 million of it in public money) being given to the owner of the Detroit Red Wings to build a new hockey arena and the $800 million Michigan State Treasurer Andy Dillon said the state owes the city. "We don't see Mr. Orr going after that $800 million."
Garrett added, "We honored our commitment. We want the city to honor its commitment and the state of Michigan to honor the constitution."
Photo: Prayer vigil for Detroit workers and retirees, Aug. 2, downtown Detroit. Metro Detroit AFL-CIO Facebook page.