The financially strapped Teamsters Central States Pension Fund will pursue benefit cuts to retirees — including thousands in Minnesota — under a new federal law co-sponsored by Rep. John Kline, R.-Minn.
At a meeting in a Chicago suburb Wednesday, the fund's trustees told union leaders from across the Midwest that they will pursue a "rescue plan," said Trevor Lawrence, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 638, which represents workers in Minnesota and North Dakota.
"Everybody came out thinking there will be cuts," said Lawrence, who attended the meeting. "I don't think anybody was happy. But the people in the room understood if you don't do something now, the cuts will be deeper later."
The Central States Pension Fund, which serves roughly 410,000 participants, is having trouble taking in as much in investments and member contributions as it pays out to retirees. If that situation remains unchanged, the fund's trustees say the plan will become insolvent within roughly a decade.
The fund will send a preliminary letter to some pensioners this week describing its intentions to reduce benefits. But the size of the cuts and when those cuts will take effect depend on approval of a benefit reduction plan by union members and the U.S. Treasury Department.
Lawrence said the Central States Fund is seeking Treasury Department guidance with an eye toward making a summer proposal detailing the cuts. The cuts, he said, likely will not go into effect until 2016.
Retirees will be represented in the process by Sue Mauren, the retired leader of Teamsters Local 320 in Minneapolis.
Jeff Brooks, a retired truck driver in south Minneapolis, said Minnesota is not as heavily affected as other states, but he said at least 10,000 Minnesota retirees receive checks from the pension that could be affected by the cuts.
Brooks said the greater concern is the potential for other pension plans to cut benefits, not just the Teamsters.
The Central States meeting Wednesday was "the first big movement on the subject since the bill was passed," Brooks said.
The law applies to "multi-employer" pension plans, and has drawn criticism from Teamster retirees like Minnesotan Bob McNattin, who remains angry that the pension-cut bill was tacked on to the federal budget by Kline and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., without a separate vote.
"The problem is that this is being forced on us," said McNattin, a truck driver who contributed to the Central States Pension Fund for 30 years. "Why did this law have to be approved with no debate? I think it's an outrage and a breach of the social contract."
In a statement, Kline said Congress had to act to prevent insolvency. "Make no mistake, without this law, many retirees would have had their benefits wiped out entirely. This was not an easy thing to do, but it was the right thing to do."
About 100 union retirees protested potential cuts to benefits outside the Central States meeting held in a convention center in Rosemont, Ill. Some participants in Wednesday's meeting worried about crossing what appeared to be a picket line, said Mike Walden of the Northeast Ohio Committee to Protect Pensions, a group of Teamsters members. Walden spoke to the Star Tribune on the phone as he stood outside the Central States meeting. He said he and others had assured those who attended that they were not breaking protocol.
"We told them it was just a rally line to show we're concerned about our pensions," said Walden, who is scheduled to speak at an information meeting for Minnesota union members 10 a.m. Saturday at the Weyerhaeuser Chapel at Macalester College.
Bob Amsden, a retired Teamster with the Wisconsin Committee to Protect Pensions, said the Central States Fund trustees "have been lobbying for this for three and half years." Now, he added, the trustees "have a clock that's ticking." Amsden promised pushback against the cuts by pressuring Central States trustees and politicians.
"We have to fight," said Amsden, pointing to possible legislation to overrule Kline's. "But this is 75 percent a done deal."
Staff writer Jennifer Bjorhus contributed to this report.