Pension measure shows renewed privatization attack

PHILADELPHIA – The Philadelphia City Council passed June 13 yet another measure aimed at widespread privatization of city services. The measure creates what Councilman Richard Mariano termed an “opportunity for a golden parachute” at the Philadelphia Gas Works (PGW), the publicly owned city agency responsible for natural gas service for city residents.

The measure lowers pension eligibility from the curent 10 years to only five. While almost none of PGW’s 1,200 workers and 2,400 retirees are affected by the change, the measure would greatly benefit managers in the event PGW is privatized. Under the rule change, PGW’s president would become eligible for a pension worth over $150,000 a year.

PGW has been in the privatization cross-hairs ever since an “oversight board” was appointed to “modernize” the agency a few years ago. Following changes made by the corporate-dominated board, the agency has been at a deficit that reached $1 million in the wake of last winter’s gas price gouging.

Other city agencies under privatization attack include the Water Department. Attempts to privatize city schools have met a firestorm of student, parental and union protest, so much so that creditors downgrading the stock of the main privatization candidate, Edison Schools Inc., characterized the situation in Philadelphia as a “political war.”

Nevertheless, Mayor John Street, backed by Big Business interests, has stood by privatization, including the idea of selling off City Hall itself.

PGW Local 686 officials pointed out that the local renegotiated its contract with management in May-October 2001. Yet management “never brought [pensions] up in that period,” although pensions have “historically ... been a negotiated item.”

The measure was rammed through council at the final session before summer break. Councilman David Cohen stated that neither the union nor the council had time to review the measure, asking that it be tabled. As one Local 686 trustee put it, the vote was clearly an attempt to “circumvent the contract” between the union and management.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org