For the Teamsters, there is no bigger fight right now than the battle to reform pensions.
Emboldened by congressional legislation that created a bipartisan pension committee tasked with finding a solution to the nation’s looming pension crisis by the end of November, union leaders and members are pushing the 16 members of the House-Senate Joint Select Committee on Solvency of Multiemployer Pension Plans hard to come up with a real fix for the pension crisis.
As it stands, there are more than 300 multiemployer plans across the country—including the Teamsters’ Central States Pension Fund—that are in danger of failing. The bipartisan panel needs to find a legislative vehicle that will deliver for working Americans who are paying, or have paid, into the pension pool and have played by the rules all their lives.
The retirement security of as many as 1.5 million active and retired workers could be at risk if pension legislation is not passed soon.
As of now, Central States is facing an unfunded liability of $26 billion, the largest of all multiemployer plan shortfalls. Other threatened multiemployer plans face a total shortfall of $19.2 billion.
“The future of more than a million retirees and workers, many of whom worked decades and contributed to their pensions under the understanding they would be supported in their golden years, is being called into question,” said Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa. “It’s not right.”
Rank and File
But this movement is not just being steered by union leadership. Teamster members and retirees have been front-and-center in the lobbying effort, appearing before lawmakers on Capitol Hill and at a hearing at the Ohio Capitol; rallying in Columbus, Ohio and in Detroit; and visiting the offices of their elected representatives in Washington, D.C. and in their home districts.
When given the chance to share their stories, these hardworking Americans have been blunt about the challenges they are facing or will face if their pensions are slashed.
Kenny Stribling, a retiree with Local 200 in Wisconsin, testified before the joint pension committee on Capitol Hill in late July.
“I worked for 30 years for three different trucking companies that paid into the Central States Pension Fund,” Stribling said during his heartfelt testimony about how the pension crisis has personally impacted him. “I am married with children and grandchildren. I need this pension for my family.”
Stribling, who is co-chair of the Milwaukee Committee to Protect Pensions and retired from USF Holland in 2010, said the stress alone of knowing his retirement benefits could be cut is impacting the health of his family.
“My wife was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, which has spread to her liver. I was recently diagnosed with an enlarged heart. This is due to high blood pressure and stress. My heart is working overtime just to keep up,” Stribling told the committee.
Roberta Dell, a 46-year employee of Spangler Candy Company in Bryan, Ohio, and a member of Local 20, expressed her own worries about her pension during a mid-July hearing in Columbus. Her husband, also a former Spangler employee, died in 2015, and she questioned whether she would be able to retire with dignity if cuts are implemented.
“I now sit here beside you in sadness and desperation,” she told committee members. “I had planned on working until age 68, but with the uncertainty of the pension, I don’t know if that will be possible. I’m not the only one. So many I have talked with are in similar situations.”
“A Legal Contract”
Unfortunately, the story did not come as a surprise to Rep. Debbie Dingell of Michigan, who said during the July 13 Ohio field hearing that she had heard from many constituents who were severely stressed about the situation, including one she described as suicidal and another who asked her what he should tell his dying wife about the status of his pension.
“People don’t understand,” she said at the hearing. “These are people who worked all their lives and played by the rules. It’s not fair.”
Retirees and those close to retirement age aren’t the only ones angered by the state of pensions.
Several younger union members have voiced their concerns and said the government needs to act now to reform the system.
Nanci Tummillo, a member of Local 743, attended the Columbus rally and said it was important for workers and retirees to join together.
“A pension is not a promise, it’s a legal contract, and now they want to take that away. That’s not right,” Tummillo said.
Local 507 member Brian Taylor said showing solidarity on the issue is key.
“Myself, I’ve been with the Teamsters all my adult life so I know what it’s like,” he said. “When it’s time to retire, I want to make sure my money is there. But for the guys who are already retired, I want to make sure they are still getting what they worked for.”
Find a Solution
The Teamsters have also teamed up with other unions to stress the importance of pension reform.
At a July 20 town hall meeting in Detroit, hundreds of Teamsters were joined by members of the United Auto Workers, the United Food and Commercial Workers, the Iron Workers and the United Brotherhood of Carpenters to stress the urgent need for action. They were joined by Dingell, Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California and a bevy of other congressmen.
The turnout was even larger the previous week in Columbus, when more than 10,000 union members and retirees came together on the statehouse grounds to demand that the joint pension committee reach consensus on a solution that would keep their retirements afloat.
One thing is for sure: The system workers have now is not working.
The Teamsters and other unions are looking at pension plans going bust in the next decade. Having benefits cut by two-thirds or more will lead to retirees losing their homes and not being able to pay for essential medicines. That is not living with dignity and is unconscionable for those who spent decades toiling away to support their families.
These workers aren’t asking for a handout; they just want what is rightfully theirs. It’s time for the joint committee to find a legislative solution that will make them whole. They’ve waited long enough.
Reviving Multiemployer Pensions
Butch Lewis Act Will Prop Up Failing Pensions
So what is the plan to revive multiemployer pensions? It’s one the Teamsters worked with lawmakers for more than a year to craft, and bears the name of a former Local 100 leader who died while trying to ensure that the retirements of his members would be protected.
The Butch Lewis Act of 2017 (H.R. 4444/S. 2147), which was introduced in Congress late last year by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.) has received bipartisan support.
“We’ve got the solution. We worked hard, even though they said we couldn’t do it,” Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa said during a July rally in Columbus, Ohio.
Face to Face
Local union officials from across the U.S. trekked to Capitol Hill in April and July to speak to their members of Congress about the importance of supporting the bill.
Numerous union members have done the same at lawmakers’ congressional district offices across the country.
Two of those Teamsters involved in such efforts were from Local 104 in Phoenix. Dawn Schumann, the local’s statewide political coordinator, and Ryan Proctor, a business agent, visited seven offices and met with lawmakers and staff in July. Their message was pension reform is necessary for workers.
“There needs to be some kind of reform for these members,” Proctor said. “They set this money aside. They worked these hours and are entitled to their pensions.”
As part of the Butch Lewis Act, the newly formed Pension Rehabilitation Administration (PRA) would lend money from the sale of the bonds to the financially troubled pension plans. Plans that are deemed “critical and declining,” as well as recently insolvent but non-terminated plans and those that have suspended benefits, would be eligible to apply for the program.
Pension plans borrowing from PRA would be required to set aside the loan proceeds in separate, safe investments such as annuities or bonds that match the pension payments for retirees. For those plans needing additional help to meet retiree obligations, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation would be available to make up the difference.
Those applying for loans to the PRA—which would be charged with approving all loans before they could be issued—would have to submit detailed financial projections. And, pension plans that have borrowed money would have to submit reports every three years to the PRA to show that the loans are working. Loans would need to be repaid within 30 years.
Passage of the legislation was a top priority during the Teamsters Political and Legislative Coordinators Conference this summer, when several lawmakers spoke to attendees about the need for reform.
Rep. Ryan Neal thanked the Teamsters for all their work to get the word out on the legislation.
“I’m delighted with what you have done on this,” he said. “The Democrats will hold fast. We have got to convince some Republicans. And I have a few in mind.”
One GOP lawmaker who didn’t need any convincing was Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.). He became the first Republican to co-sponsor the bill, and said more in Congress need to stick up for pension reform.
“I am proud to be on the bill and will do everything I can to enact it,” he said.