Less than six months after getting started, a grassroots campaign among Teamsters union retirees to protect their pensions appears to be picking up steam, attracting the support of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders and threatening to influence the outcome of the union’s own leadership elections next year.
The retirees are demonstrating in the streets and barraging members of Congress in outrage over a slow-moving plan to cut their pension benefits. Such cuts were authorized by special legislation — the Multiemployer Pension Reform Act of 2014 (MPRA) — passed by Congress and signed into law by President Barack Obama late last year. One leader of the campaign against the cuts estimates that thousands of union retirees could see their pension slashed by as much a 30 percent by the end of this year.
The campaign against cuts has seen “a big change in the six months since we started,” says Bob Amsden, a retired truck driver from the Milwaukee area. Since organizing work began in January, some 23 local committees of pensioners have been formed across the Midwest, he says. The work has been strongly supported by the union reform organization Teamsters for a Democratic Union, he adds, as well as by the Washington, D.C.-based Pension Rights Center. Some support is also building in Congress to repeal the new pension law.
In the highest-profile action yet, Sen. Bernie Sanders (Independent-Vt.) held a press conference June 18 to introduce repeal legislation.
“If we do not repeal this disastrous law, retirees all over this country could see their pensions cut by 30 percent or more. We cannot let that happen. Instead of asking retirees to take a massive cut in their pension benefits, we can make these plans solvent by closing egregious loopholes that allow the wealthiest Americans in this country to avoid paying their fair share of taxes,” Sanders said.
The Sanders repeal bill was immediately endorsed by the elected leaders of the Teamsters and the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM).
IAM spokesperson Frank Larkin tells In These Times that the Machinists “were one of the loudest opponents” of the pension bill last year and will continue its opposition now by supporting the Sanders bill. “This law should be the concern of every union. When you open this door [to large pension cuts], we are all at risk,” he says.
The immediate threat to union retirees like Amsden is that the new law will be used to authorize cuts from the financially troubled Central States Pension Fund, a joint labor-management organization that administers pensions on behalf of more than 400,000 Teamster members and retirees. The MPRA law allows such cuts from any union pension fund, subject to government approval, if pension administrators can demonstrate that the fund is in danger of insolvency unless the cuts are made. Officials of Central States have made clear that the fund faces precisely this kind of danger and that cuts may be coming.
Recognizing the political sensitivity of the issue, the Obama administration took steps in June to deflect any potential criticism. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew announced June 17 that he is appointing New York lawyer Kenneth Feinberg to oversee any pension cuts to ensure there is a “balanced process” in determining which retirees suffer. Feinberg became prominent a decade ago as administrator for claims by the victims of the 9⁄11 terrorist attacks, and more recently played a prominent role in awarding compensation claims in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster and the General Motors ignition switch scandal.
Feinberg may well become the lightning rod for criticism as the process move forward. Amsden tells In These Times that his group is agitating for a Congressional hearing, or a Congressional investigation, into the Central States Fund. Congress should look especially at lavish compensation to fund administrators and extravagant fees to financial advisers, he says, so that improper payments can be retrieved to benefit pensioners. Meetings with Sen. Ron Johnson (R‑Wisc.) give him hope that the Senate will hold hearings, Amsden says.
Meanwhile, the potential pension cuts are emerging as an issue in the internal Teamsters presidential election set for next year, Amsden continues.
A major challenge to incumbent union President Jim Hoffa is already underway by Tim Sylvester, president of Teamsters Local 804 in New York. The Sylvester campaign — also backed by Teamsters for a Democratic Union — is currently collecting signatures from union members so the candidate and his slate can be accredited as official opponents of the incumbent administration.
Some of the pension activists are rallying to Sylvester’s support, Amsden says, because they feel that Hoffa did not do enough to protect pensions when the MPRA legislation was being considered last year. Retirees do not have the right to vote in union elections, “but that doesn’t mean we can’t campaign,” he says. And many Teamsters who can vote are just as concerned about their pensions as the retirees, he adds.
“They’re scared” that the pension issue will hurt their chances for re-election, according to Amsden, referring to Hoffa and other elected union leaders.
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