A Pension Isn’t Greed

By Russ Layne
How is it I have the time to write this piece? Two years ago, it would have been impossible. Two years ago I was a full-time speech and language therapist and the cultural affairs chairman for New Jersey’s third largest school district: Paterson. Essentially, I had two full time jobs – one for which I was paid and one for which I got not a penny. But that’s what teachers who are passionate about connecting with kids do.

Paterson was virtually the birthplace of the American labor movement. The first strike in a U.S. factory took place in Paterson in 1828. Eighty-five years later Paterson – now the epicenter of the textile industry – was the site of the Great Silk Mill Strike.

Later, Paterson’s teachers organized and that’s where I come in.

My journey to becoming a teacher, despite what right-wing talking heads and newly elected reactionary governors might say, was not through mail order. First it took four years of disciplined study as an undergraduate and then another year to complete a Masters degree. Among my peers, the reality of working with kids for a respectable salary overshadowed any desire to put wealth over our interest in social responsibility. As aspiring educators, our consciousness was more focused on how we might make a difference in society. There was little talk about making big bucks.

The Paterson School District was one of the first to offer me a job and since my predilection was to work in an urban environment, I took it. I knew very little about the teachers’ union but after much cajoling by the building representative, I became a member. The union seemed like just another insurance policy, a kind of a necessary evil. It took some learning over the years to understand that despite the fact I would not get rich teaching, the union, with its failings, was responsible for preserving two benefits that every working American deserves: decent health care and a decent pension.

In fact, often when salary negotiations were stymied, the union held firm on not compromising health and pension benefits. Trying to sustain a middle-class lifestyle on a teacher’s salary was indeed problematic. For many years, I had to teach summer school. I also taught bedridden students after school hours. When my neighbor put much of his surrounding property up for sale, we asked if we could buy a small piece to preserve some sense of privacy. His answer: “You can’t afford it. You’re school teachers.”

After 38 years of a challenging yet fulfilling career, I retired. Suddenly, I and my fellow retirees are accused of being “greedy” by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. Recently The Daily Show with Jon Stewart showed pundits on Fox News declaring that teachers’ pensions are “outrageous” and “enormous.” At the same time Christie, governor of the state with one of the largest populations of billionaires, has never once considered levying the Millionaires Tax – a tool accessible to him in economically stressed times.

O.K. Governor Christie, I’m willing to give up my mansion, live-in chef, servants, and maybe even my yacht and jet, but I won’t allow you to tamper with my pension or health care.

I’ve never been one to give hyperbolic lip service to public education and its unions. As with any public or private institution, there is always room for improvement. But unions and public education are cornerstones of democracy, however imperfect. And now to be called “greedy,” because of those hard-won and hard earned benefits, hardly fits the definition in my dictionary of “greed.”

Russ can be reached at GuestWriter@zestoforange.com


2 Responses to “A Pension Isn’t Greed”

  1. Anita Says:

    Russ, this had to be said and you did it so well. Thanks for writing this.

  2. Russ Layne Says:


    Thanx so much for the sentiment. Things have gotten incredulous politically in this country, not to speak of socially and economically. Its like having an out of body experience…is there any meaning to the words “truth” and “reality” anymore?

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