Democrats Pledge to Protect Union Pensions

House and Senate Democrats hope to pass legislation to “put union pension plans back on solid footing,” but their bicameral position in the minority makes this a tall task.

Democratic members of both the U.S. House and Senate convened to promote their own plans for promoting broad-based economic acceleration, paying particular attention to the issue of troubled multiemployer pension plans. 

The left-leaning lawmakers are calling their economic vision “A Better Deal,” one that would “ensure the pensions American workers have earned over a lifetime of work are safeguarded and protected into the future.” While some of the lawmakers first started talking about this package of proposals back in July, the press conference was clearly called to show a unified opposition working to derail the GOP tax reform proposals under debate in the House and the Senate.

Laying out the “Better Deal,” lawmakers repeatedly suggested pension plans, “including the massive Central States Teamsters Pension Plan, the United Mine Workers Pension Plan, and over 200 more plans impacting workers in every state in the country,” are on the brink of failure and are “threatened by massive cuts.” As laid out by House and Senate Democratic members, this new legislation “would put the pension plans back on solid footing, ensure they can meet their obligations to current retirees and workers for decades to come without cutting the benefits retirees earned, and safeguard them for the future.”

When it comes to actually legislating the Better Deal, it seems the Democrats are coalescing around two bills, one previously put forward by Independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), called the “Keep Our Pension Promises Act.” In short, the stand-alone bill would reverse a provision passed in 2014 that, as Democrats put it, “could result in deep pension cuts for millions of retirees and workers in multiemployer pension plans.”

Another proposal to emerge is called the “Butch Lewis Act,” a similar proposal that would essentially be a bolt-on provision to the larger spending bills slated for votes very soon in Congress. Butch Lewis, the former President of Teamster Local 100 and “a leader of the fight to save Teamster pensions,” died in December 2015. His wife, Rita Lewis, spoke during the press conference and thanked the lawmakers for pressing this issue. 

For context, in December 2014, Congress approved and President Obama signed a spending bill that included provisions that allow for dramatic cuts to financially troubled multiemployer pensions. Under this provision, the pension benefits of retirees could be cut by 30% or more, and this has already occurred. Before the law was changed, it was illegal for an employer to cut the pension benefits retirees have earned.

According to Democrats, their legislation “establishes a legacy fund within the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation to ensure that multiemployer pension plans can continue to provide pension benefits to every eligible American for decades to come.” This legislation is paid for by closing “two tax loopholes that allow the wealthiest Americans to avoid paying their fair share of taxes.”