Several hundred retired union workers and their families rallied Saturday at the State Capitol in St. Paul to denounce proposed deep cuts to Teamsters pensions.
Trustees of the giant Central States fund want to reduce the pensions of nearly 275,000 people nationwide by an average of 34 percent. The proposal would affect more than 15,000 Minnesota retirees.
The protesters, many of them retired truckers and their families, denounced the cuts via song, chant and speech, waving U.S. flags and placards.
“What happens to you, happens to us,” Rick Olseen, a field representative for U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, told the crowd.
“We’re here to make it clear that we ... will not allow Teamsters who faithfully paid into Central States to the tune of $15,000 a year to be stuck with a bill because 13,000 companies used bankruptcy and all kinds of financial shenanigans to get out of their legal and contractual obligations,” said Olseen, a former Teamster whose wife is a bus driver with Local 120. “This is morally wrong. It’s un-American. And it’s the height of financial irresponsibility.”
Deregulation of the trucking industry threw the Central States fund into upheaval, as did the overall decline in union membership and in the number of employers paying into the plan. It was the first multiemployer pension fund to seek benefit cuts under a 2014 federal law that allows plans expected to run out of money in less than 15 or, in some cases, 20 years, to cut benefits to retirees. The law creates an exception to federal rules that protect the accrued benefits of active pension plans.
Fund trustees argue that slashing benefits is a last-ditch move to save the fund from insolvency in as few as 10 years. But union workers decry the cuts as a betrayal.
For some retirees, the cuts would be a devastating blow to their finances, forcing them back into work to afford medical expenses. Michael Rudolph, a 71-year-old retired UPS driver, said he’s looking at a 45 percent cut that could send him searching for part-time minimum-wage work.
“There’s not much of a market out there [for older workers],” he said. “My wife and I will have some hard decisions to make.”
Vern DeBlieck, of Coon Rapids, invested 30 years as a truck driver before comfortably retiring. If he suffers a 53 percent pension cut, DeBlieck said he’ll be near the poverty level for the first time in his life at 67. “The reason we stayed doing these stupid jobs and taking a cut in pay was because we knew we were going to have a pension,” he said.
The U.S. Treasury Department has until early May to rule on the Central States cuts. Sen. Al Franken has co-sponsored a bill to stop them, supported by fellow Democrat Sen. Amy Klobuchar. In the House, Minnesota Democrats Collin Peterson, Rick Nolan and Keith Ellison also have signed on.
A protest outside U.S. Rep. John Kline’s office in Burnsville is planned for April 14, the same day thousands of Teamsters head to Washington, D.C., for a rally at the U.S. Capitol. Kline helped change the law that once forbade pension cuts.