COLUMBUS, Ohio — The house. Food on the table. Survival.
Those are some of the ways workers and retirees who demonstrated in Ohio's capital Thursday described the pension payments they are fighting to protect.
"It's everything, mostly, because you worked all of them years," said Duane Ross, 61, of Cadiz, who spent 30 years in the mines.
Ross was among thousands of unionized coal miners, iron workers, teamsters, bakers, tobacco workers, millers and others who descended on the Ohio Statehouse to rally ahead of a congressional field hearing in Columbus. They brandished signs saying "Save Our Pensions" and wore T-shirts that reminded politicians, "We Are Everywhere."
At issue are the financial effects on retirees, workers, small businesses and taxpayers of the potential failure of pension plans guaranteed by the federal government.
"We're not asking for a handout from the government. We're asking for a loan," said retiree Al Hall, 78, who rode in overnight by bus from Illinois. "They bailed out all of the other companies. They should bail us out, too."
Ohio's two U.S. senators — Democrat Sherrod Brown and Republican Rob Portman — will chair Friday's hearing of the House and Senate Joint Select Committee on Pensions. Brown championed creation of the committee and calls the fifth public meeting in Ohio perhaps its most important to date.
"What Washington doesn't always understand is that these folks sat at the negotiating table; they gave up wages over the last several decades today so that they'd have retirement security in the future," Brown said in a weekly call with reporters Wednesday.
Some 60,000 workers in Ohio and 1.3 million nationally are facing deep pension benefit cuts unless shortfalls are addressed in multi-employer pension plans guaranteed by the federal government. Current workers also would lose benefits toward which they've been contributing.
The Teamsters' Central States Pension Fund faces unfunded liability of $17.2 billion, the largest among the funds. Other threatened pension plans face a combined $19.2 billion shortfall. More than 300 such plans across the country are at risk of insolvency.
The pensions committee has been tasked with coming up with a solution by November that Congress could vote on before the end of the year. Brown is up for re-election Nov. 6. He faces Republican U.S. Rep. Jim Renacci, of Wadsworth.
Brown said that if a solution isn't found, affected retirees will face pension benefit cuts of up to 70 percent, and that many Ohio small businesses will be badly damaged, or even go bankrupt, because of being unable to meet their pension liability.
"After all of that devastation, all of those lives upended, taxpayers will still be on the hook for tens of billions of dollars to prop up the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation," he said.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates the cost of backing the corporation's debts, should it fail, at $101 billion over 20 years.
Brown said legislation he has proposed has been vetted by actuarial experts and could work to resolve the looming problem. Dubbed the Butch Lewis Act, it would create a loan program for retirees. But Brown said he remains open to bipartisan compromise.
Congressional Republicans have not yet come to agreement on supporting the bill, but the crisis is a growing concern to both parties, as well as to the Chamber of Commerce and other business groups.