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Mihalopoulos: Public’s view of city workers’ pensions likely to continue to shift

Since becoming a City of Chicago employee 15 years ago, Jeff Johnson says he’s noticed a dramatic change in how other taxpayers view him and the rest of the city work force.

“When I first got a job with the city, people used to look at me and say, ‘That’s a great job. I wish I had that,’ ” Johnson says.

The sentiment he hears most often these days is far more critical: “Why don’t I have that — and you shouldn’t have it either.”

Johnson, who works as a dispatcher for fire emergency calls, is on the front line of the fight for city workers and retirees to preserve the good deals they’ve long enjoyed.

OPINION

For the past year, he’s been president of the Municipal Employees Society of Chicago. The 5,000-member group, formed in 1910, quickly won approval of the original pension law and has been keeping tabs on it since.

The city’s financial problems — its credit rating was downgraded again Tuesday, to junk status — have provided the biggest challenge yet to preserving worker pensions.

But Johnson says he and many other members of the Municipal Employees Society are more confident than ever after last week’s state Supreme Court ruling struck down a state law diminishing pensions.

It’s hard to read the unanimous high court opinion and see any way for public employers in Illinois to reduce the pensions of retirees or any worker who’s put in even a day on the job.

Johnson is confident the ruling will bolster a lawsuit seeking to block changes to city worker pensions that Mayor Rahm Emanuel won from lawmakers in Springfield.

“Rahm cannot be allowed to say our case is different and prolong what is now inevitable,” says Johnson, who’s a plaintiff in that case in Cook County Circuit Court.

The next hearing in the case is scheduled for 10 a.m. Wednesday.

Johnson, 35, was born in Chicago and grew up near Belmont and Elston. He attended the city’s first selective-enrollment elementary school, Lane Tech High School and Harold Washington College.

With an associate’s degree in fire science, he got a city job at age 20. The conditions were so good, he says, he never pursued his original goal of becoming a firefighter.

Today, he’s paid a salary of slightly more than $90,000 a year and could retire at age 53 with a full pension — assuming the underfunded funds have anything left to pay out by the time he’s eligible to collect.

Johnson says he isn’t worried about that happening, shrugging it off as a doomsday scenario “trumped up to strengthen [Emanuel’s] case for pension cuts.”

“People put too much stock into the funding numbers,” Johnson says. “The money will be there. We just need to pay in a little bit more.”

And whom exactly did he mean by “we”? Johnson says both public employees and the taxpayers have to increase their contributions to pension funds.

“There needs to be more revenue,” he says. “Everything will take care of itself over time.”

Johnson’s assessment seems overly optimistic, given the grim numbers. But if those views reflect his members, then the Supreme Court ruling has left them with little motivation to deal away any of their benefits.

That means the city will have to raise taxes drastically or cut services sharply to meet its pension obligations. Then, even people who normally would be sympathetic to public employees could be directing a lot more anger than envy toward Johnson and his co-workers.