Column: Union pension fight heats up at Capitol
The Teamsters have been vocal in their call for multiemployer pension reform for years. But now the union and its members are redoubling our efforts and ramping up the fight on Capitol Hill to let lawmakers and their aides know what is at stake and how a piece of legislation co-sponsored by five members of Michigan’s congressional delegation is the right vehicle to fix the retirement mess facing some 1.5 million people nationwide.
Last week, local union officials from all across the country trekked up to the Hill to speak to their members of Congress about the importance of supporting the Butch Lewis Act of 2017, a bill that would boost financially-troubled multiemployer pensions so they don’t fail. It would create an agency under the Treasury Department that would sell bonds in the open market to large investors such as financial firms.
They explained how their members and Teamster retirees are fearful for their futures if real change is not made. And they told elected officials how the nation’s economy could be adversely affected if legislation to fix failing multiemployer pension plans doesn’t happen.
That came only days after top Teamster officials briefed House and Senate staffers on the Hill, educating them about the Butch Lewis Act and the history troubled pension plans. It was essential to speak to those who work behind the scenes in Congress so they could understand the retirement crisis that is looming if nothing is fixed.
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 Joint Select Committee on Solvency of Multiemployer Pension Plans, co-chaired by pension reform advocate Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), needs to find a vehicle that will deliver for these hard-working Americans who are paying, or have paid, into the pension pool and have played by the rules all their lives.
Luckily, the Butch Lewis Act (H.R. 4444/S. 2147) would solve the problem. Brown is the lead sponsor in the Senate, while Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.) introduced the bill in the House. Michigan co-sponsors include Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters, as well as Reps. Sander Levin, Debbie Dingell and Dan Kildee.
But this measure is not just a one-party plan. Republicans such as Reps. Peter King and Dan Donovan of New York, Chris Smith, Frank LoBiondo, and Tom MacArthur of New Jersey, Brian Fitzpatrick and Ryan Costello of Pennsylvania, Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, Don Young of Alaska and Jeff Fortenberry of Nebraska understand the value of the bill and should be lauded for supporting this legislation.
As of now, the Central States fund is facing an unfunded liability of $17.2 billion, the largest of all multiemployer plan shortfalls. The Bakery and Confectionary Union pension is second with a $3.2 billion shortfall, while the United Mine Workers are third at $2.4 billion. Other threatened multiemployer plans face a total shortfall of $13.6 billion. That’s why the Teamsters are stressing the importance of the joint pension committee to come up with a solution as soon as possible.
Workers and retirees aren’t asking for a handout; they just want what is rightfully theirs. We urge the joint committee to endorse this legislation that will make retirees whole. They’ve waited long enough.
James Hoffa is president of the Teamsters.
Labor Voices columns are written on a rotating basis by United Auto Workers President Dennis Williams, Teamsters President James Hoffa, Michigan AFL-CIO President Ron Bieber and Michigan Education Association President Paula Herbart.