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Investigating the Workforce

Unions and pensions may sound like daunting subjects to cover, but Tom McGinty of The Wall Street Journal and MaryJo Webster of the St. Paul Pioneer Press lay out compelling reasons to get past that impression, and helpful tools to get you there.

McGinty (who stresses he is not a labor reporter, but learned a lot from working on a union project) went beyond typical campaign finance reporting to find much more telling and robust datasets. “Unions don’t so much deliver money to candidates. They deliver votes.”

The Department of Labor’s LM-2 form must be filed by all unions with more than $250,000 in annual receipts. It’s rich in detail, and the data can be downloaded for every year dating back to 2000. A couple notes on working with LM-2 data: The level of detail may change from year to year, and the data comes in pipe-delimited format. (Smaller unions are required to file less detailed reports, so there is still good reporting to do on unions if they are smaller on your beat.) Check out his tipsheet for more information.

Switching to pension reporting, MaryJo Webster shared her tips on a chock-a-block full Power Point presentation (also available as a handout).

Many folks have heard about funding ratios as a measure of a pension system’s health, but MaryJo made an important point about calculated surplus or deficiency. This is an official designation that is even more important than the funding ratio, she said, because it represents whether the system is bringing in enough money to pay its obligations in the long-term. In other words, if the system is running at a deficiency, that means that not only does it have an unfunded liability, but it’s adding to it every year.

MaryJo also found that, when her newsroom launched its pension investigation, the pension representatives were extremely skeptical. The more detailed questions they asked, though, the more it showed their dedication to fairness and their commitment to the story. Rather than being afraid of the paper doing a drive-by story (as another local outlet had recently done), the pension officials were given reason to trust her paper’s journalism.

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