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John Fowler, a 61-year-old retired machine worker from Monroe, appealed to U.S. House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi on Friday at a Detroit town hall held by the Teamsters union. He said his pension check had dropped 72 percent this year.

Fowler has a disabled child he helps support, and now his wife has health issues. He is told that more pension cuts could come to the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers fund.

"When your pension gets cut that much, it don't leave a whole lot left," he told The Detroit News. "It hurts."

California Democrat Pelosi joined other U.S. lawmakers and national union leaders, including International Brotherhood of Teamsters General President James P. Hoffa, on Friday at the Teamsters Health and Welfare Building in Detroit. They were there to hear from workers and retirees and to promote legislation that would create a new agency to help save collapsing pension plans and ensure their futures.

"We have a defined challenge to our country that we should not be facing, because it's just not fair and it's just not right," Pelosi said to the crowd of 500 after hearing 17 union members share questions, concerns and stories.

Three-hundred labor union retirement plans across are underfunded, putting at risk 1.5 million people nationally and more than 43,000 in Michigan who participate in pension funds created by workers from several employers, according to organizers of Friday's event. Although there is a government-sponsored insurance company for such pensions, the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp. projects it will go bankrupt by 2025. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the collapse would cost more than $100 billion over 20 years.

In 2015, participants in multi-employer pension plans received $241 billion in wages and pension benefits, contributing $35 billion in federal taxes and an additional $8.4 billion in state and local taxes.

The largest of these troubled funds is the Central States Pension Plan, which includes 400,000 Teamsters workers and retirees nationwide. Paying $2.8 million and generating $700 million, the plan expects to run out of money in eight years.

A cardboard sign hung from the neck of Jan Kachur that read, "Retired Teamster. Will work for food. 35 years experience."

"How can I possibly start over?" said Kachur, 76, of Deerfield, who serves on the Michigan Southwest Committee to Protect Our Pensions, the local arm of a national lobby group. "I'm second-generation in this country, I never wanted to have to be on assistance. We figured our future was safe."

Friday's event supported the Butch Lewis Act. U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, introduced the legislation, which was co-sponsored in November by U.S. Sens. Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Township, and Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing. It would create the Pension Rehabilitation Administration within the U.S. Treasury Department to loan money to failing pension plans to remain solvent. The administration would issue Treasury bonds at about 3 percent interest for 30 years to pay for the loans, providing pension funds time to safeguard for the future.

"They're swapping a large debt of pension liability for a smaller debt; corporations do it all the time," said John Murphy, Teamsters International vice president. "We're using a tool of capitalism to protect retirees and active workers."

Detroit's Teamsters Local 299 President Kevin Moore emphasized that this would not be a bailout, but that the union would pay back the loan.

"A lot of people in this country are talking about how our pensions are an entitlement," Moore said. "An entitlement? Our pensions are a lifetime of hard work... If this pension issue isn't something you are willing to die for, then what are you living for?"

U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, serves the district with the most pension workers in the U.S. She sits on the congressional Joint Select Committee on Solvency of Multiemployer Pension Plans, which is charged to avoid a pension crisis. The committee is holding public hearings, but has a report deadline of Nov. 30. Dingell said she has already told her family she won't make it to Thanksgiving dinner.

"We need to roll up our sleeves, because failure is not an option," Dingell said. "I hear their stories every weekend. I know the distress. They work hard, and we have a moral obligation here."

bnoble@detroitnews.com

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