More than 100 retired union workers descended upon the Burnsville office of U.S. Rep. John Kline on Saturday to protest a pension reform bill he’s sponsoring that they fear will further slash union benefits.
Kline, the Minnesota Republican who chairs the House Education and Workforce Committee, wants multi-employer pension plans to transition from guaranteeing monthly payments to paying flexible benefits based on investment results. The program would be somewhat similar to a 401(k) plan except that trustees, not employees, would make investment decisions for contributions.
The new “composite” bill was omitted from the congressional budget resolution last week following significant pushback from Democratic lawmakers and thousands of rank-and-file workers, who insisted that the legislation not be rushed through without “regular order or debate.”
“We demand respect and we demand a place at the table,” union leader Bob McNattin said at Saturday’s rally, noting that Kline will retire with a “generous” federal pension. “The battle will continue.”
Pickets marched back and forth in front Kline’s Second Congressional District office with signs reading, “Honestly earned, honestly ours” and “Stop the war on workers.” In light of the news that the composite bill had been temporarily halted, retirees were jubilant but said the fight to keep pensions fully funded never seems to end.
“It’s a small victory,” said Paul Slattery, political director for Teamsters Local 120. “But we must remain vigilant.”
Kline was one of two congressmen who authored an amendment to a 2014 appropriations bill that gave trustees of distressed plans much broader authority to cut earned retirement benefits. The U.S. Treasury Department later rejected cuts requested by the severely underfunded Central States Pension Fund this May.
Thousands of Teamsters traveled to Washington, D.C., in the weeks before that decision, where they decried cuts to more than a quarter-million retirees on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol.
Steve Baribeau, a St. Paul truck driver who retired in 2014 after 37 years, said Saturday that he faced a 46 percent reduction in pension payments before the Kline law was halted by the Treasury. Though his house is paid for and he’s collecting Social Security, Baribeau, who has diabetes, relies on that money for medication and doctors’ bills.
“[The reduction] would mean no vacations, no college money for the grandkids,” he said. “This is money we earned. … It’s not our fault it wasn’t invested properly.”
Kline could not be immediately reached for comment Saturday. He and supporters of the composite plans believe they are an alternative designed to keep pensions alive and that without them more plans will end up in situations like Central States.
But many union coalitions worry they transfer the risk from corporations to individuals.
“This is a matter of self-interest — make no mistake about it,” said Bill Moore, president of the Minnesota State Retiree Council, AFL-CIO. “This is a hit on organized labor.”
Last Saturday, U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., and Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken appeared at an overflow forum at Macalester College in St. Paul to protest Kline’s composite bill. All three publicly denounced it.