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Multi-employer pension rally draws thousands to Ohio Statehouse

July 12, 2018

Multi-employer pension rally draws thousands to Ohio Statehouse

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- About 5,000 people rallied outside the Ohio Statehouse on Thursday to urge Congress to aid more than 200 multi-employer pension plans at risk of failing.

They came from as far as Utah. They carried signs and sang union songs. And they shouted their message over and over again: Fix it.

The pension funds cover more than 1.3 million retirees nationwide and more than 60,000 in Ohio, including truck drivers, bakers, musicians, miners and flight attendants. If the funds’ obligations exceed their assets, pensioners’ benefits will be slashed. Taxpayers could be on the hook if they fail because the plans are backed by the federal Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp.

The rally, thought to be the largest here since a 2011 protest to protect public collective bargaining power, was planned ahead of a Friday congressional hearing to be held at the Statehouse.

Ohio’s Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown chairs the House and Senate Joint Select Committee on the Solvency of Multiemployer Pension Plans; Republican Sen. Rob Portman is also on the panel. The committee has 16 members: four senators from each party and four representatives from each party.

The committee is holding only one field hearing, in Ohio, and it faces a Nov. 30 deadline to reach a bipartisan deal to prevent the pensions from going under. Ten of the 16 must agree to a fix to send a plan to the House and Senate.

Employers who have been paying more to shore up the plans also want Congress to act. Ohio workers, retirees and employers are scheduled to testify on Friday.

The United Mine Workers of America pension plan is on the brink of collapse. UMWA International President Cecil Roberts said the government needs to step in after creating the conditions for the the funds’ struggles and bailing out the banks behind the financial crisis that led to the funds’ investment losses on Wall Street.

“They should do the same for the retirees who lost their benefits and in some cases their health care,” Roberts said.

Many of the employees and retirees at the rally support Brown’s proposal to offer low-interest loans, named the Butch Lewis Act after a Cincinnati-area trucker and veteran who died from a stroke while fighting pension cuts. Jim Franklin, treasurer of Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International Union Local 19 in Cleveland, is one of those supporters.

“We need some changes made. They can make simple changes that would help us tremendously,” Franklin said.

Franklin said small bakers can’t keep up with wages because they’re paying more to cover pension plans.

Republicans on the committee oppose a bailout for the plans, which are essentially private contracts.

Doug Kalnbach, a retired ironworker from Michigan, said pensioners aren’t asking for a bailout, and a low-interest loan program would mirror opportunities available to farmers. Kalnbach said without a fix, retirees may foreclose on their houses, have to file bankruptcy or spend less, which would have a wide ranging effect on the economy.

“We don’t want to be bailed out, but we want a little assistance to give us a leg up,” Kalnbach said. “We built America. We built all these buildings.”

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