In the aftermath of the Illinois House and Senate passing pension reform legislation Tuesday, leaders of several suburban teachers unions said they were unhappy with the deal and vowed to continue the fight in the courts.
Lawmakers say the deal, expected to be signed soon by Gov. Pat Quinn, will save $160 billion, but union leaders have argued against it because of provisions that will reduce annual cost-of-living increases and raise the retirement age, among other changes.
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"The pensions were promised and now that promise has been broken," said Jim Arey, president of the Northwest Suburban High School District 214 Education Association. "The sad part is that the teachers have been vilified for trying to protect what was theirs."
Tom Tully, president of the Glenbard Education Association, sat down to write his state representative and senator to express his disappointment.
"Obviously, it's very disappointing to have the state gut our pensions for reasons all of their doing," said Tully, who teaches at Glenbard East High School in Lombard. "We really didn't have any fault in this matter."
Tully said he resents that legislators tried to make teachers' benefits seem "outrageous" in a tough economy and called the changes "hard to swallow."
"We dedicate our lives to public service, educating children. I can't think of a higher calling than that. We thought the state would be our partners in that and we held up our side, but now here we are in this situation," Arey added.
Some took issue with a lack of transparency and details around the final bill.
"I think the biggest problem is knowing that it was kept behind closed doors," said Kathy Castle, president of the Elgin Teachers Association, which represents educators in Elgin Area School District U-46. "All the representatives were asked to react to this very quickly. I'm glad that there was debate on the floor today."
With talk of lawsuits starting before Quinn even signs the bill, the pension fight is far from over.
"We'll fight this all the way to the end," Arey said. "And if we lose then I guess we'll just see how people are going to react when their benefits are taken away."
Since the District 214 union is not affiliated with the Illinois Federation of Teachers or the Illinois Education Association, Arey said his members will need to decide how to proceed in the expected lawsuits. Those suits will center around a clause of the Illinois Constitution that states pension benefits "shall not be diminished or impaired."
If the reform plan is held up by the courts, some teacher union leaders said it could hurt the profession going forward.
"You want to be able to attract the best talent in the teaching field because teachers are going to mold and develop the next generation," Arey said. "But if you have diminished benefits it's going to be really difficult to attract quality teachers to Illinois. Who would want to be in this state when you're not supported by the government that's supposed to be behind you?"
For current teachers the long drawn-out debate has put off choices about when to retire, Castle said.
"This has been a tremendous disruption for several years. You have a lot of people that have not been able to make decisions," she said. "Clearly many people are not going to be able to afford to retire based on what I'm hearing"
Michael McGue, president of the Lake County Federation of Teachers union, warned that Tuesday's vote could come back to haunt legislators in next year's elections.
"It'll have far-reaching ramifications because most of my members vote," McGue said.
• Daily Herald Staff Writers Madhu Krishnamurthy, Marie Wilson and Bob Susnjara contributed to this report.