Retired Teamsters packed a large hall in Independence on Thursday to hear more and to make their voices heard on pending cuts to their pensions.
“I paid into it for 35 years,” said Jim Schnitz of Kansas City North. He said he’s facing a 52 percent cut – $1,682 a month – starting July 1, and he said if that goes through he’ll lose his house.
“It’s not our fault. We paid into it all the time,” he said. “We thought we were set for life.”
The president of the Missouri-Kansas-Nebraska Conference of Teamsters, Jim Kabell, outlined troubles in the union’s pension fund to a full house at American Legion Post 21. Many wore T-shirts reading, “Stop the rush to pension cuts!”
“My opinion is we have to do some cuts, unpopular as that is to say,” Kabell said, adding that the Central States Pension Fund will be insolvent in 10 years or less without changes. He also took aim at Congress for actions he said made things worse and for not acting on needed solutions, and he urged Teamsters to get active to address that.
“From here on, our effort to our legislators is going to be relentless,” said Dave Scheidt, president of the Missouri-Kansas City Committee to Protect Pensions, which organized Thursday’s event and has more in the works.
The pension fund covers about 400,000 people across several states – about 60,000 active employees, 210,000 retirees and another 130,000 who are vested in the program but have less than 20 years of service and aren’t drawing benefits. Thirty-five years ago, Kabell said, more than four workers were paying into the fund for every one retiree drawing from it. “So the pension ratio was good,” he said.
Now, that ratio has flipped, and Kabell ran through the decline in Teamsters membership, local by local, across three states. Local 41 in Kansas City, for example, went from 3,726 members at the end of 2000 to 1,622 at the end of 2014. Local 541, constructors in Kansas City, went from 101 to 51. Local 955 in Kansas City fell from 1,598 to 572 as employers such as Interstate Bakeries went away.
Half of the retirees getting pensions, he said, worked for companies that have gone under, and there are hundreds of millions of dollars in unfunded pension liabilities. The single biggest problem, he said, was the deregulation of the trucking industry in the 1970s, ultimately leading to many companies leaving the business.
“Central States was built on the base of freight employers,” he said.
The pension fund is losing money. It has $15.2 billion in reserves, down $1.8 billion in a year, Kabell said. A good stock market helps, but the fund took a $9 billion beating when stocks crashed in 2008. In 2014, Kabell said, the fund paid out $2.8 billion in benefits and workers’ employers paid in just $800 million.
“It’s all math, folks,” he said. “And that simply doesn’t work as things are how.”
The union also is critical of changes to the Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA, that Congress slipped into a major spending bill at the end of 2014. That allows pension cuts not just to future retirees but to current retirees. The Central States benefit cuts need federal approval this spring to go through.
“I think we have got to have a rescue plan,” he said.
Kabell said Congress got it wrong with ERISA when it didn’t allow pension funds to have rainy day funds when times were good but instead had to spend excess money in the form of ever-rising but unsustainable benefits. He also said the union made some mistakes along the way with generous benefits.
“We’ve got a lot more money going out that what we’ve got coming in,” he said, adding that in his view the fund has 10 years to go, though he said some think it’s more dire than that. That could mean that a 52-year-old Teamster paying in today would see nothing. If the fund becomes insolvent, he said, “at their next contract renewal, they’re going to demand to get out of the fund.”
He urged retirees to contact members of Congress.
“We can make a difference with things that go on,” Kabell said, drawing applause.
He said there are proposals in Congress to put federal money into the fund but that it would come at the expense of getting rid of tax cuts for the wealthiest and that won’t come up for debate in the Republican-controlled Congress. He said repeatedly that he didn’t want to get into a political discussion but did criticize U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., for not supporting pension changes and said Blunt needs to be voted out of office this fall. He also called on his fellow Teamsters to not be distracted by politicians focused on “God, guns and gays – and abortion,” and he said a worker’s wallet is a moral issue, too.
He got some pushback from those in attendance, and one person yelled out, “It is politics, you knucklehead!”
Kabell said he stood by his comments, and he quoted longtime labor leader Walter Reuther, who said, “There’s a direct relationship between the ballot box and the bread box, and what the union fights for and wins at the bargaining table can be taken away in the legislative halls.”
“That’s never been truer than it is today,” Kabell said.
The retirees plan to keep pressing their case. Next month, they plan an “ERISA funeral procession and eulogy” in Kansas City.