On July 12 thousands of union coal miners, teamsters, bakery workers, musicians and other workers from across the Midwest and beyond will rally in Columbus, Ohio, demanding the government take steps to maintain pensions of tens of thousands of retired and working members.
The unions are urging a big turnout for the protest. The fight for union-scale retirement benefits for all workers guaranteed by the government needs to be the cause of the entire labor movement.
“We have buses coming from cities across the Midwest and from Alabama,” Phil Smith, communications director with the United Mine Workers, told the Militant by phone July 3. “People are coming from as far as Utah and Colorado. We expect a pretty big rally.”
UMW buses are leaving from six locations in West Virginia, two in Kentucky, two in Pennsylvania, and Illinois and Alabama.
The Teamsters are organizing buses from western Pennsylvania, and elsewhere.
“The Teamster Central States plan, the bakery workers pension plan and the miners plan are all on the brink of insolvency,” Smith said. This comes from years of attacks by the bosses on the unions and government backing of employers against workers. It was exacerbated by “the 2008 financial crisis, when a lot of companies went bankrupt and stopped paying into the plans,” Smith said. “Congress bailed out the banks. It should guarantee the pensions for the workers.”
The pension crisis for working people is rooted in how these funds were set up. They’re tied to the capitalists’ production levels and profits, rather than the rights of workers, who have toiled their entire lives, to a decent retirement.
As the crisis deepened, unionists took the fight to keep pensions funded to Washington. These capitalist politicians did nothing to resolve the crisis. Instead, Congress passed the Multiemployer Pension Reform Act in December 2014, allowing the managers of pension funds deemed to be in “critical and declining status” to apply to the Treasury Department for permission to slash retirees’ payments.
The setup is crooked. In 2017 over 30,000 Teamsters and retirees in nine New York Teamster unions were told they had to vote on whether to cut their own benefits. The vote was more than 2 to 1 against any cuts. But then they were told they had to have a majority of all the members to win, and, since over 20,000 didn’t vote, they lost. Starting in October 2017, those who had worked more than 30 years on the job were hit with massive cuts in benefits.
In February Congress passed the Bipartisan Budget Act, which again didn’t provide any funding to secure pensions for hundreds of thousands of retirees who are enrolled in plans that are on the brink of insolvency. Instead, it created the Joint Select Committee on Solvency of Multiemployer Pension Plans, tasking it with coming up with a report and recommendations by the last week of November. The committee is meeting in Columbus July 13, and is the focus of the July 12 union protest.
The United Mine Workers 1974 Pension Plan is expected to become insolvent by 2022, sooner if the economy turns downwards. It covers 87,000 retired and 20,000 working miners.
If the plan collapses, coal miners and their dependents will be dropped into the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, a federal agency that insures union pensions when funds go insolvent, at lower rates. This agency is also running out of funds, one of the motivations for passing the 2014 bill allowing the slashing of pension benefits. The current average miner’s pension is $586 per month.
Thousands of Teamster members have experience with what happens if the government agency takes over.
“Last year our fund ran out of money and the government agency took over payments,” Kevin McCaffrey, president of Teamster Local 707 in Long Island, New York, said by phone. “If you had been getting $3,000, you now get $1,000. On average they cut pensions two-thirds. It affects 3,500 retired and 1,000 working members of our local.”
For 34,000 Teamsters in the Albany region in New York state, cuts to present and future pensions will go into effect Oct. 1. Those who are still working will see a 19 percent reduction and most retired workers will be cut 29 percent.
UMW officials support the American Miners Pension Act, introduced in Congress last Oct. 3. It proposes to transfer money from the Abandoned Mine Land program — set up to clean up after mines that have closed — to the UMW pension plan.
“We have that proposal for the UMW plan, but it’s the job of Congress to fix this for all these workers, not just miners,” Smith said. “We don’t really care how it’s done as long as it gets fixed.”