Obama Administration’s ‘Parting Gift’ to Ohio Iron Workers: Steep Pension Benefit Cuts?!

When Walter Overstreet was working, union trustees who had access to his pension fund’s books never indicated to him he should have any reason to doubt he could safely retire. Now he and his wife face a huge cut in their pension benefits. Image: Originally published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, courtesy of the Overstreets.

Just over two years ago, Barack Obama signed a measure altering 40 years of labor law, and paving the way for unprecedented cuts in benefits for current retirees in troubled multiemployer pension plans.

As of early 2017, according to nationally syndicated financial columnist Terry Savage, 67 multiemployer plans covering nearly a million workers — virtually all if not all of them unionized — have already “filed with the government to be classified as ‘critical and declining.’”

Under the so-called “Multiemployer Pension Reform of Act” (MPRA), rubber-stamped by a “lame duck” Congress in December 2014, plans that are classified as “critical and declining” are potentially eligible to reduce pension benefits by 30% to 65%.

In public, union bosses try to disavow responsibility for the MPRA. But the fact is, the MPRA could never have been adopted without the support of the bosses of multiple unions whose rank-and-file members now face drastic pension benefit cuts.

In 2013, William Hite, general president of the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing and Pipefitting Industry (UA), endorsed the original blueprint for the MPRA, known as “Solutions, Not Bailouts,” when it was issued by a commission on multi-employer pension reform.

Mr. Hite declared that the SNB proposal, essentially identical in key regards to the legislative measure ultimately introduced by Reps. George Miller (D-Calif.) and John Kline (R-Minn.) and adopted by Congress, would make “retirement plans more secure.”

Tom Nyan, executive director of the Teamster Union’s Central States, Southeast & Southwest Areas Pension Fund, was unapologetic about the fact that the SNB plan would cut retiree benefits sharply:

“We are going — it’s not a question of if there are going to benefit cuts. There are going to be benefit cuts. The question is when and how they are going to happen.”

Late last year, the pension fund comanaged by the Cleveland-based Iron Workers Local 17 union received Obama Treasury Department approval to slash benefits for its members. Consequently, this month roughly 2000 forced dues- and forced fee-paying workers in western Ohio are facing a Hobson’s choice. (See the link below for a related news story.)

They can cast a vote in favor of losing up to half of their benefits starting February 1. Or they can vote potentially to lose all of their pension benefits when Local 17’s grossly underfunded pension plan runs out of money in 2024.

And the key reason why the Local 17 pension plan and many other similar Big Labor-dominated “multi-employer” plans are underfunded is that union officials never even tried to get employers to set aside enough money for pensions to make it possible for union officials to keep their promises to employees.

One of the handful of jobs that iron workers, Teamsters, plumbers, iron workers, and other union bosses are supposed to do in exchange for the vast sums of conscripted money they take in is to ensure that the pensions workers are promised are there when workers need them.

But now it’s obvious that a large share of forced dues-paying workers in multiemployer plans did not have secure pensions — and union pension trustees and other union officials who had access to the books must have been aware there was a grave problem for decades. And the problem is getting worse and worse.

If Big Labor had leveled with future retirees years ago, it would at least have given workers time to prepare. This is another distressing illustration of just how little union bosses deserve their forced-dues privileges. And of how readily politicians like Barack Obama will do Big Labor bosses’ bidding, even if unionized workers are the people getting hurt.

Retired ironworkers could face pension cuts next month