From Common Dreams
Workers are fighting for their hard-earned pensions and every one of them deserves our support
Losing Pension Retirees rallied to try to keep what they earned over the years
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Standing out among the baldpates and gray hairs crowding into a congressional hearing room Thursday morning with "Protect our Pensions" stickers will be 26-year-old Ben Trusnik.
The son, grandson and great-grandson of labor union members, Ben will travel to Washington, D.C., from his home in Bedford, Ohio, to speak for the men and women he works with at Etched Metals Co. He will join other union activists in speaking for workers who are afraid that after laboring 40 or 50 years, they won't be able to retire because the multiemployer pension plan they depended on is nearly insolvent.
He'll be there for the guy who retired from Etched Metals a little over two years ago whose wife has been ill for a long time. When visiting his former coworkers at the plant, this man talks about the bills piling up from medical treatments, doctors and medications. Insurance doesn't cover it all. "He is pretty worried," Trusnik says, about losing his pension and with it, the ability to pay.
Actuaries project that 130 multiemployer pensions -- that is, plans in which several companies participate -- will run out of money over the next 20 years. Even though that number is less than 10 percent of all multiemployer pension plans, their impending insolvency threatens the entire multiemployer pension warranty program of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC).
The PBGC is the program created by Congress in 1974 to step in when pension plans fail. Using payments from pension plans, the PBGC provides benefits to about 1.5 million people in failed multiemployer and single-employer plans. The payments pensions make to the PBGC are essentially insurance premiums. The PBGC does not receive tax dollars.
The PBGC anticipates that its multiemployer program will go bust by 2025, but that could occur sooner if several of the larger threatened multiemployer plans fail quickly. Implosion of the PBGC multiemployer guaranty program would have devastating consequences for everyone who currently receives benefits from it and for everyone whose multiemployer pension is weak. The 130 vulnerable multiemployer plans cover 1.3 million people.
The PBGC does not pay full pensions to retirees, but something is better than zip, especially because pensions are deferred compensation. They're earned for each hour worked. They're not gifts like fancy engraved retirement clocks. Union workers often trade wage hikes for pension increases in contract negotiations. They sacrifice immediate gratification for the security of a good pension later. But if the PBGC's multiemployer program fails, then the workers it covers would get virtually nothing.
When Congress created the PBGC, it made a commitment to working men and women that they would not lose their pension benefits through no fault of their own. It must stand true to that obligation now.
These multiemployer pension plans are foundering not because of something workers did or didn't do. It's not even because of something the employers did or didn't do. In most cases, they were blown away by a storm of factors including globalization, manufacturing mechanization, and financial deregulation and speculation that caused the Great Recession, which, in turn, cost pension plans untold billions.
Early Thursday morning, Trusnik and two dozen fellow United Steelworkers (USW) will join other union members including Teamsters and United Mine Workers at a hearing titled "The Cost of Inaction: Why Congress Must Address the Multiemployer Pension Crisis." It will be conducted by the House Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor, and Pensions.
Later, Trusnik and the other labor union members will fan out across the Capitol and try to persuade their U.S. representatives and senators to support bipartisan legislation called the Butch Lewis Act, under which the federal government would provide low-interest loans to the struggling multiemployer pension plans to stabilize them and enable them to meet their obligations to workers.
"The key word is loan," Trusnik says. "It is not a handout. We plan on paying everything back."
The factory where Trusnik works, Etched Metals, is one of 14 Ohio companies whose workers are members of USW Local Union 1-243. Three of those companies, Etched Metals, of Solon, Ohio, and American Bronze Corp. and Rochling Glastic Composites, both of Cleveland, have workers and retirees owed benefits from a struggling multiemployer pension plan.
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