More than two decades of work by the Teamsters to save the retirement nest eggs of a million-plus hardworking Americans came to fruition today when President Biden signed the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan (ARP) into law, bringing relief to more than 200 multiemployer pension plans teetering on the edge of financial disaster.
The culmination of those efforts came rather swiftly after many previous starts and stops that had at times raised the hopes of affected families, only to dash them again. The President, working with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, had promised to tackle pension reform in the lead up to the 2020 election if given the reins of power. And some 50 days after Biden took office, they did just that.
“Teamster members told the union as it ramped up its election efforts that pension security was their top concern,” Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa said. “With that in mind, the union put together a plan to help elect President Biden and other lawmakers who promised to prioritize the retirements of hardworking Americans. They followed through with that promise and delivered for us.”
As part of the ARP, more than 50 Teamster pension plans – including its largest, the Central States Pension Fund – are eligible for assistance at the outset of the bill’s enactment, with more of the union’s plans becoming eligible in 2022. [To read more about how the ARP will help workers, click here.]
Under the new law, money to assist eligible plans will come directly from the U.S. Treasury Department in the form of grants which would not need to be repaid. Plan participants will receive 100 percent of their earned pension benefits. Affected members and retirees are encouraged to contact their pension fund in the coming days to find out more information specific to their benefits.
How it Happened
The COVID-19 stimulus bill that included multiemployer pensions was considered under reconciliation, a legislative process that allowed the Senate to pass the legislation with a simple majority of votes instead of the 60 votes needed under regular rules.
Under the leadership of House Ways & Means Chairman Richard Neal, a long-time pension reform advocate, pension language was inserted in the broader House bill in committee and cleared legislative attempts to have it removed.
Teamster members, retirees and officials had spent countless hours in recent years attending meetings, lobbying lawmakers on Capitol Hill and even testifying before Congress trying get elected officials to implement changes that would preserve the retirements they contributed to throughout their working days.
The Teamsters and other unions had fought off efforts to slash multiemployer pension benefits for struggling plans that would have cut benefits in excess of two-thirds in some cases. The move jeopardized the financial security of hundreds of thousands of retirees and those nearing retirement who had planned to live off their pensions during their golden years.
Several came to Washington to tell their stories. They were people like Rita Lewis, widow of former Local 100 President Butch Lewis, who told members of the Senate Finance Committee in March 2016 how her husband was so stressed by the efforts to cut benefits to his family and other retirees that it led him to have a massive stroke that killed him. Legislation to save pensions was later named after him.
“These cuts are hitting us like a ton of bricks and none of us has time to prepare for the cuts or make additional accommodations like we might have done if we were still young,” she said. “It’s cruel to cut our pensions now when few of us can go back to work, leaving us without options to make up the difference in our incomes.”
Kenny Stribling, a retiree with Local 200 in Wisconsin who also serves as co-chair of the Milwaukee Committee to Protect Pensions, told a similar story to members of the Joint Select Committee on Solvency of Multiemployer Pension Plans when he testified before it in July 2018. He said uncertainty over the financial status of the Central States plan wore on his health and that of his wife, who had terminal cancer at the time. She has since passed away.
“This is an issue of fairness, of keeping promises to working Americans who did everything right,” he said. “We did our part, forgoing raises and job improvements for our retirement security. And we are simply asking you to preserve what is due to us.”
Beyond speaking before Congress, Teamsters also came by the thousands to rallies on Capitol Hill in April 2016 and the Ohio State Capitol in Columbus in July 2018 to stress the importance to lawmakers about finding a pension solution that would allow them to support their families.
And that doesn’t even take into account the Washington, D.C. visits by members and retirees over the past six-plus years that were almost too many to count. Many traveled repeatedly on their own dime to let their elected officials know finding a solution was critical to more than a million hardworking Americans.
Efforts to reform multiemployer pensions did make progress during the last session of Congress, when a bipartisan collection of members of the House approved legislation in July 2019 to fix them. But the bill languished in the Senate and was never taken up, despite pleas to then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to do so.
Election was Key
That’s why Teamster members themselves decided they had to make changes at the ballot box as part of the 2020 election to get this done. Many got out on the campaign trail in fall 2019 and let candidates know that pension relief was essential and needed to be supported.
And candidates in turn responded. All six of those who participated in the Teamsters Presidential Candidate Forum held in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in December 2019 pledged to support pension reforms that would save these hard-earned retirements, including now-President Biden. It was a message Biden would repeat frequently after becoming the Democratic nominee, and even did so in a special video to Teamster members in the closing days of the campaign.
This is how the Teamsters reached their goal of having pension reform enacted. Promises made, promises kept.