Thousands gather at Statehouse for rally to save pensions

Source: The Columbus Dispatch

The passion from the crowd of thousands who traveled from all over the country was palpable as union workers descended on the Statehouse Thursday to call on their elected representatives — both in Columbus and Washington — to save their dwindling pension funds.

The massive crowd gathered for a rally ahead of a Friday hearing at the Statehouse. The hearing will include both Ohio U.S. Sens. Sherrod Brown, a Democrat, and Rob Portman, a Republican, who will take part in a joint congressional committee tasked with solving the looming pension crisis that has put at risk the pensions of about 1.3 million retirees and active workers.

But before the elected leaders take to the drawing board in hopes of crafting a bipartisan solution, those at risk of losing their livelihood and retirement made it a point to have their voices heard and blow off a little steam in the process.

Those in attendance said their elected officeholders have pushed this problem off for too long. Retirees spent years paying into multi-employer pension funds, with the expectation of having that money when they finish working. With the Wall Street collapse and subsequent recession, those plans are now struggling and in need of support.

Without new legislation, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation — the federal entity that insures pensions — could go under.

Speakers representing dozens of labor unions took the stage to draw attention to the crisis.

“This is the people’s building,” said Tim Burga, president of the Ohio AFL-CIO, pointing to the Statehouse in front of him. “We have had to assemble here to remind everyone of that.”

Repeated chants of “Fix it!” rang through the crowd as speakers urged them on. Retired union workers and those planning for retirement called on Congress to pass legislation that would pump hundreds of millions of dollars into struggling pension funds.

“This is not a bailout,” said Mike Walden, president of the National United Committee to Protect Pensions. “Why aren’t we viewed as a taxpayer like everyone else?”

Brown proposed the Butch Lewis Act that many in attendance supported, but it failed to get bipartisan support. That bill would have created a low-interest, 30-year federal loan to troubled pension plans, with no cuts to retirees’ benefits.

Dave Field, a lifelong Republican who supported Donald Trump for president in 2016 and donated to his campaign, said he stopped supporting the president following the tax plan that Republicans passed in December because it gave tax cuts to corporations, but forgot about pensions earned by people such as him and others in attendance.

Field traveled from North Carolina to attend the rally. He said he is doing his part by showing up as a sign of solidarity. After working for almost 40 years, Field has seen his monthly pension check cut by more than half, losing nearly $700 a month. He is worried that if things don’t get better, he’ll be forced to sell his house.

“People work for 40 years to earn a pension and now it’s being taken away,” he said. “The companies that caused it had bailouts. The government fined those companies, kept the fine money and left us hanging.”

Numerous pension plans, including the massive Central States Pension Fund for Teamsters, the United Mine Workers Pension Plan, the Iron Workers Local 17 Pension Plan and hundreds of other plans are on the brink of failure.

More than 300 multi-employer plans across the nation are in danger of failing.

The hearing at the Statehouse will be the fifth on the pension crisis, but the first outside of Washington, D.C. Ohio was chosen because it is among the states with the most pensions at risk, with nearly 60,000 workers in the Central States fund that is in severely declining status.

By the end of July, the committee will finish the hearings and move on to finding a solution — one that needs bipartisan support.

A solution must be approved by five out of eight members of each party on the committee, then pass both the House and the Senate by an up-or-down vote, with no amendments allowed to be added.