Mary Sanchez: The federal government’s little-known pension heist

“Too big to fail” means one thing for banks and another thing for union pension funds.

When banks are on the verge of collapse, Congress bails them out. When union pension funds are in mortal danger, Congress changes the law to let them shaft retirees.

Did you miss that newsflash? So did many of the 407,000 unsuspecting Teamsters, mainly former truck drivers, who received letters in October announcing whether their pension benefits will be cut.

Two-thirds of them got bad news. The Central States Pension Fund claims it will be reducing members’ retirement checks by an average of 23 percent. Union activists say that figure is much higher, and for some the reductions will top 60 percent.

That means hardship for people who have deferred compensation for their entire work lives in exchange for a pension. Bills won’t be paid and mortgages won’t be met – and it will be through no fault of their own.

It once was illegal to cut promised pension benefits. But at the end of 2014 Congress voted to change that — for some. It did so with no debate and no hearings. The Multi-Employer Pension Reform Act was attached to a must-pass omnibus spending bill. President Barack Obama signed it a few days later.

The law permitted the so-called multi-employer pension plans, run jointly by unions and employers, to apply to the Treasury Department to reduce benefits. And that’s what Central States did in October. Union member will notionally get a chance to vote on the cuts, but the Treasury Department can override that outcome. Count on it to do so.

Multi-employer pension plans are clearly in trouble. They cover more than 10 million workers and they are mostly underfunded. The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., the federal agency that backstops pensions, would not be able to withstand the failure of the Central States fund. (The federal program is also in trouble, reporting a $76 billion deficit in mid-November, and its estimated exposure to future losses runs to the hundreds of billions.)

How did the situation get to this drastic point, and what should be done?

First of all, Central States is not in trouble because of mob skimming, as some might presume. Yes, it was set up by the notorious Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa in 1955, and he was later convicted of improper use of funds from the pension. Courts intervened in the early 1980s, and Goldman Sachs and Northern Trust were set up as fiduciaries.

The main factors in Central States’ decline have been deregulation, de-unionization and demographics. Following the trucking deregulation of the 1980s, numerous companies went under, adding to the pension’s burdens. Over the decades, union membership has declined and retirees have lived longer.

The financial crisis of 2008-09 hurt as well. In 2007, Central States had $27 billion; it has since lost one-third of its assets. It is currently paying out $3.46 in pension benefits for every dollar it receives through worker’s contributions.

However one apportions the blame, the ones who will suffer the most had no part in managing the funds. And the whole point of federal pension guarantees is protecting such people. A more fair resolution would be to bolster federal pension protection.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio have introduced companion bills, the Keep Our Pension Promises Act. They would prop up the vulnerable pension funds through changes in the tax code affecting wealthier people.

Not all union-involved pension funds are in such straits. But when they do get into trouble, it’s fashionable for some politicians and opinion-page blowhards to blast the misfortune as just desserts. We need to remember that all benefits are compensation. Workers take them in lieu of wages, and to take them back once they have been earned is, well, theft.

Why is it that no one but the retired workers – the only people who have held up their side of the bargain through their years of labor – are being made to suffer the consequences?

Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via email at msanchez@kcstar.com.

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