Promises Made, Promises Kept, Pensions Saved

Columbus, Ohio Pension Rally, July, 2018 retirees , Jim Hoffa

More than two decades of work by the Teamsters to save the retirement nest eggs of a million-plus hardworking Americans came to fruition in March when President Joe 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. 

President Biden, 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. 

The union has spent the last six-plus years pushing back on terrible pension legislation enacted in late 2014 that allowed struggling multiemployer pensions to cut earned benefits. 

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 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 and Means Chairman Richard Neal, a longtime 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. 

Dedication to Pensions 

Several of those retirees 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. 

“President Biden’s signature on this legislation is the culmination of years of hard work by so many with ties to this union,” Hoffa said. “But no one fought harder than affected members and retirees who attended countless meetings, repeatedly lobbied lawmakers and rallied to the cause. The Teamsters are grateful for their dedication to get this done.” 

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. 

Biden’s signing of the legislation brings to a close that chapter and can bring peace-of-mind to workers and retirees who only want to enjoy their golden years. 

“The Teamsters also want to thank Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.) and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) for sponsoring legislation and recognize the resolve that Rep. Neal showed by filing pension legislation as his first act when he became chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee,” Hoffa said. 

This is how the Teamsters reached their goal of having pension reform enacted. Promises made, promises kept. 

What’s in the American Rescue Plan? 

Legislation Benefits All Working Families 

The American Rescue Plan (ARP) is a godsend for Teamster retirements, and one that should be celebrated. But it is also protecting the livelihoods and safety of workers who have been hit hard by the pandemic. 

The Teamsters Union played an active role in fighting for additional worker support in the wake of COVID-19 by pushing for stimulus legislation. And that continues with the passage of ARP, a $1.9 trillion package that brings billions of much-needed funds for states and local governments, unemployed workers and health care benefits as well as in the form of checks to hardworking American families. 

Many Teamsters and other essential workers are still working in unsafe conditions and without access to quality personal protective equipment (PPE). The ARP sets aside $10 billion to use the Defense Production Act to purchase, produce and distribute equipment including tests, PPE and vaccines. 

The bill also provides funding to support the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s enforcement in high-risk sectors and expands incentives for employers to offer paid leave. 

More than 200,000 Teamsters work in the public sector. This legislation provides states and localities with funds to address revenue loss, not just unanticipated COVID-19 related expenses. The flexibility will help states to avoid mass layoffs and furloughs that would worsen the recession, delay recovery and undercut public health response efforts. 

Significant support is given to states and localities to expand vaccine distribution, testing and contact tracing. The bill also provides necessary funding to support in-person teaching— where it is safe to do so for teachers, staff and students—as well as expenses associated with equitable access to distance learning. 

Over 600,000 Teamsters start their workday by turning the key of a vehicle. The ARP supports transportation industries and workers with funding for transit agencies, airports, airlines and Amtrak that can be used to cover operating expenses, including payroll costs and purchasing PPE. 

And while the majority of Teamster members have been on the job throughout the pandemic, many Teamster industries have been hit hard by lack of consumer demand and mandated property closures associated with social distancing guidelines. The ARP provides displaced workers with access to uninterrupted unemployment benefits as well as mortgage and rental assistance. 

The bill also authorizes another round of direct payments to struggling households to help families pay for their everyday expenses. Additionally, the ARP also supports continued access to affordable health care through the Affordable Care Act, Medicaid and a 100 percent federal subsidy for COBRA benefits. 

Workers deserve all the gains included in this legislation.