CLEVELAND — Thousands of retired Teamsters have been blasted this month by major cuts to their pensions. The cuts are part of a little known part of the 2012 Omnibus Spending Bill (Pension Reform Act of 2012), which was put forward supposedly to help fund the underfunded Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC).
The cuts are averaging 22 percent per retiree, according to the Central States Pension Fund. Central States Fund is the only pension fund to file for “relief” this far under the 2012 act. The biggest employers in that plan are Yellow Roadway Corp. and Kroger.
Teamsters were gathered, this past weekend at a conference in Cleveland dealing with these cuts and how to organize the fight against them.
“We don’t know how they even came up with those numbers,” stated Mike Walton, chairman of the recently formed Central Ohio Committee to Protect Pensions (CPP). “A very good friend of mine is being hit by a cut of over 60 percent. He and his wife both are fighting cancer. It broke my heart to see him break down while he was testifying on his situation.”
The PBGC is part of the ERISA Act of 1974. Congress passed ERISA in 1974 in order to guarantee worker’s pensions after the bankruptcy of Studebaker Corp. when thousands of autoworkers lost the pensions they’d worked their lives to earn. Under ERISA, the PBGC takes over an existing pension plan in the event of a corporate bankruptcy and distributes the funds to eligible retirees, guaranteeing their pensions. Once the PBGC issues the pension to recipients, Federal law assured that the amount of the pension could not be changed, guaranteeing it for life.
The 2012 act allows, for the first time ever, for pension plans to file for relief and cut retirees PBGC pensions.
This is the second time, since its passage, that ERISA language was changed, harming retirees. In 1995, after a big national corporate propaganda campaign claiming that pension funds were “unproductive” and would be much better taken care of if only corporations were allowed to take over the funds and “reinvest” them, Congress allowed companies to do just that.
The massive underfunding and theft of worker’s pensions, resulting from that action, has been described ably by Wall Street Journal investigative reporter Ellen Schultz, in her 2011 landmark book, “Retirement Heist.” Schultz outlines how the crisis in retirement security was organized and planned by corporations, in order to further enhance massive retirement packages given to retiring executives. The 2012 legislation furthers this attack on the entire pension retirement system in the U.S.
“The attacks on retirement security are not only destroying the system of pensions and government support for retirees that had taken so much struggle to put in place, but they are wiping out the entire middle class in our nation,” according to Norm Wernet, President of the Ohio Alliance for Retired Americans (ARA). “When they cut pensions it is a disaster for the families that worked to earn them, and it also cuts community tax bases, undercuts the ability to even keep our working class communities afloat. We need to reverse this, and fight for real retiree security for everyone in our society, not just for the wealthy!”
The Treasury Dept. has set up a website to allow people to give comments on this development. Teamster retiree groups are encouraging folks to go on line and register their comments, supporting the workers regaining their previously guaranteed pension amounts and fully funding the PBGC. Go to the website and then type in MPRA 2014 in order to access the comment section.
“We’re not just going to lie down and take it,” Walton said. “We’ve started setting up committees of regular people to fight for retirement justice. We now have 31 committees in 28 states. We can’t win this fight by ourselves. These attacks are killing the middle class and we need to get everyone on board. We want to work with the AFL-CIO, all the unions and community groups. The Pension Rights Committee is helping us.”
Walton said that four committees had been organized in Ohio. Those are in Cleveland/Akron, Central Ohio, Canton/Massillon and Cincinnati. The committees have held rallies, took delegations to legislators and is encouraging others to join in the campaign.
In response to this attack on retiree security, Senator Bernie Sanders has authored S. 1631, which would close some tax cuts for billionaires and corporations, reallocating those funds to fund the PBGC and restore pensions to the retirees. Ohio Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur has put forward a partner bill, H.R. 2844, in the House. Both bills are attracting co-sponsors, including Ohio representatives Senator Sherrod Brown, Congressman Tim Ryan and numerous others. Teamsters, as well as the ARA, other unions and retiree security organizations are urging people to contact their representatives, pushing them to support these bills.
Jim Centner, National Director for Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR), the United Steelworkers (USW) retiree organization, stated that SOAR is in complete support of the teamster retiree’s struggle.
“This fight is not a new one for us. Our members have been a target of these draconian corporate attacks on their pensions for years now. “
“I’m in total support of these folks. The participants, beneficiaries, of the Central State’s fund did not cause this underfunding. These hard-working retirees worked their entire lives to earn these benefits, which are supposed to be guaranteed by their contracts and our government. We all, whether we are unionists or not, need to get into this fight and support this struggle for justice.”
Numerous conference participants raised the idea of a possible march on DC to support retirement security, as well as urging as many local activities as possible to be organized.
“We need to get everyone involved,” said Ohio retiree Greg Smith. “We’re being beaten into poverty while billionaires retire with millions of our money, in luxury. It’s just not right!”
“One of the folks that testified at hearings, a former IBT local union president, pulled his shirt up showing his surgery scars. He broke down, stating that he can no longer eat and his wife is fighting cancer. This isn’t the United States we’ve always been told was for freedom and justice for all!”
Photo: Central Ohio Committee to Protect Pensions, Facebook.