On pensions and other issues, Democratic hopefuls disappoint Teamsters’ Hoffa—so far
Teamsters General President James Hoffa. | Lui Kit Wong / The News Tribune via AP

DETROIT—Teamsters President Jim Hoffa is disappointed by the lack of discussion of kitchen-table issues by Democratic presidential hopefuls, so far.

In a column on the union website, posted after the second Democratic debate in his hometown of Detroit, Hoffa particularly dinged the Dems for not even discussing pensions and retirement security. “To call that an oversight would be an understatement,” Hoffa said.

“Sure, there was plenty of talk about the future of health care in this country and even the topic of trade made an appearance. Those are important matters.

“However, when it came to discussing issues that would allow workers to keep a foothold in the middle class—even through their golden years—there was little discussion.

“Frankly, the whole thing was a bit of a disappointment.”

Hoffa’s criticisms are important. His union has 1.4 million members, and not all of them are truckers. But thousands of them, and tens of thousands of retirees, fear their pensions are in trouble without congressional action—and the Dems, many of them U.S. senators, didn’t discuss the issue.

Hoffa isn’t the only voice demanding the Democrats devote debate time to specific issues.

In August, the Democratic National Committee rejected devoting a debate to ending poverty in the U.S., advanced by the New Poor People’s Campaign. DNC Chairman Tom Perez said granting the request would open the door to other single-issue debates, even though the NPPC pointed out the nation has 140 million poor and near-poor.

Despite the DNC’s stand, ten top Democratic hopefuls participated in a seven-hour marathon of back-to-back town halls on climate change, discussing their plans and their differences, on CNN on the evening of September 4.

Pensions and retirement security are particularly important to the Teamsters, as well as other unions—building trades unions, the Food and Commercial Workers, the Seafarers among them—whose members are covered by multi-employer pension plans.

Those pension plans are jointly run by labor and management and cover millions of workers who often shift from job to job. But the financial finagling that led to the Great Recession a decade ago tanked many of those plans with it.

The largest and most financially troubled of the group is the Teamsters’ Central and Southern States Pension Plan, and the union is one of many actively campaigning for Congress to fix the mess with 30-year repayable-with-interest federal loans to let the plans get back on their feet while not slashing payments to pensioners and their families.

Instead, the then-GOP-run Congress, in a last-minute law in 2014, socked healthy multi-employer plans with higher fees to shore up the federal trust fund available to take over payments for retirees whose plans go broke. The federal payments are far less than what the workers agreed to in collective bargaining, often sacrificing pay hikes in favor of future funds.

That same law also let financially ailing plans, like Central States, stay solvent by slashing payments to current beneficiaries by 40% or more, with federal approval, to prevent themselves from running out of money. None of this came up in the debate, Hoffa said.

“At a time when Americans are grappling with how to support themselves and their families now and in the future, this country cannot turn a blind eye towards these matters.”

“For years, Teamster workers and retirees have been at the forefront of pushing the Multi-Employer Pension Reform issue and late last month, all those efforts came to fruition when the pension reform bill” that includes the loans-and-repayment plan, HR397, passed the House 264-169.

Every House Democrat, Hoffa noted, backed it, as did 29 Republicans. The Senate is another matter. “The Republican-led chamber will have to be convinced to take it up,” Hoffa said of the companion measure, S2254 by Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.

Hoffa understated the difficulty. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., after six years of blocking everything Democratic President Barack Obama proposed, vows to and has the power to, kill any bills from the Democratic-run House. McConnell calls it all “socialist.”

“Teamsters who have been involved in this fight know passage will not be easy,” Hoffa warned. “Workers need to…reach out to senators who are currently uncommitted and get them to support the legislation.

“All of us also need to look forward and elect candidates who pledge to stand up for retirement security more broadly…. Candidates seeking the blessing and support of the Teamsters must understand the importance unions play in the working lives of the American worker and the economy as a whole.

“Supporting organizing efforts and standing for fairness and respect in the workplace is essential. Workers deserve a president who is a partner who realizes it is not just jobs, but the quality and dependability of those jobs that matter.

“U.S. leadership should realize those who worked hard and played by the rules should have the ability to provide a comfortable life for their loved ones and retire with the benefits they were promised. It’s time for all the presidential contenders to stand with hard-working Americans,” Hoffa concluded. In the column, Hoffa did not mention GOP President Donald Trump by name.


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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