Area Teamsters, pressing for Congress to make changes to save their pension fund, rallied Thursday in Independence. They said their best hopes lie with a Democratic Congress, and they singled out Congressman Emanuel Cleaver II for the help he’s given them.

“They support us, we support them. Doesn’t matter the party because we’re in the pension-protection party,” said Wes Epperson of the Missouri-Kansas City Committee to Protect Pensions. He spoke to a full room at American Legion Post 21.

“I think Central States deserves the same kind of attention we gave the banks in 2008,” Cleaver said in reference to taxpayer bailouts of the big banks during the darkest moments of the financial crisis eight years ago this fall.

The $15.6 billion Central States pension fund could run out of money in eight to 10 years – maybe less – the Committee to Protect Pensions says. Just under 60,000 active workers are paying to support 410,000 beneficiaries, mostly retirees but also more than 100,000 people who are now working in a non-Teamster job but who will someday put in for their Teamster pension.

One problem is that as trucking and related industries have consolidated, many companies underpaid what they owed to the fund and then went out of business. Congress passed a law two years ago allowing cuts in pensions to keep the fund afloat, but when a plan to do that came forward this year many retirees were looking at cuts of more than 50 percent. Teamsters pressed their case, and in May the U.S. Treasury Department blocked the plan.

But the fund still isn’t solvent for the long term. To stay in place, the committee says, the fund’s investments have to bring in $2 billion a year, at a highly unlikely 13 percent return.

A bill in Congress, the Keep Our Pension Promises Act, would close what the committee calls federal tax loopholes that benefit billionaires and direct that money to the fund. That bill won’t go anywhere as long as the Republicans control the Senate, Epperson said.

“There are people in Washington, D.C., who don’t care about the pension issue,” he said.

He also strongly encouraged people to vote for Democrat Jason Kander, who is in a tight race with incumbent Republican Roy Blunt for a Senate seat from Missouri. It’s one of a handful of races that could swing control of the Senate to Democrats.

“Folks, we’re right there,” Epperson said. “We are right there in changing who runs the U.S. Senate.”

Cleaver wondered aloud why the nation’s leaders have a hangup with helping out working people.

“That’s just absolutely crazy,” he said.

“And the working people built this country,” he added. “The people in this room built this country.”

Cleaver, a Democrat whose district includes Kansas City and most of Eastern Jackson County, is running for a seventh term in Congress. Epperson keyed in on support for Cleaver, Kander and Chris Koster, the Democrat running for governor.

Several in the room wore “Restore the Pension Promise” T-shirts, and “Stop Pension Theft” bumper stickers were everywhere. The room was receptive to Cleaver, who Epperson said has steadfastly taken up their cause.

“Thank you,” Cleaver said when he got to microphone. “It’s good to be with people that I actually like.”

That line drew some laughs, and he described how it’s not always that way in Washington. Someone in the room said, “We like you, too” – which drew applause.

Cleaver talked of his grandfather, a union member who worked for a railroad for decades, and he said his grandfather surely wouldn’t abide by his grandson not standing with working people.

As he concluded, his tone became more fiery.

“When this issue comes up – Central States – I’m going to be the loudest voice, the toughest voice in the room!” Cleaver shouted, drawing the third standing ovation during his brief appearance.