Brown at Press Club: I Believe Pensions Committee Will Succeed at Solving Crisis this Year

Senator is Co-Chair of Joint Select Committee on the Solvency of Multiemployer Pensions

WASHINGTON, D.C. – At the National Press Club today, U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), the co-chair of the Joint Select Committee on the Solvency of Multiemployer Pension Plans, said he believes the committee will succeed in producing a bipartisan solution to the pension crisis threatening small businesses and 1.5 million workers and retirees nationwide. 

Brown has been fighting for a solution to the pension crisis for years and helped create the Committee in the budget compromise reached by Congress in February. Brown is serving as Co-Chair with U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT). The Committee held its first meeting on March 14. Brown has been raising awareness for the pension crisis in recent stops across Ohio

The Committee will hold its next hearing Wednesday, April 18, 2018.

Brown’s remarks as prepared for delivery are below:

U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown

Remarks to the National Press Club Regarding the Joint Select Committee on the Solvency of Multiemployer Pension Plans

April 12, 2018 

*As Prepared for Delivery

Thank you Andrea for that introduction and for the work you do for the Press Club. 

Thank you to Jamie Horwitz and everyone who helps organize the Headliners series. Jamie was born and raised in Akron, Ohio. I remember him from his days at Miami University.

And thank you for the work you all do as journalists – it’s so important to our democracy, particularly these days.

Your job is to ask tough questions, to challenge powerful interests, and to expose wrongdoing.

And that comes with risks. Too often we see reporters restricted, vilified, attacked, and even physically threatened, all for doing your jobs – often in foreign lands; now, amazingly, in our own country.

Of course, I also have a soft spot for journalists since I’m married to one. And she inspires me every day.

I also want to thank the wait staff – the proud men and women of Unite Here Local 25. We have a lot of work to do ensure all workers have seats at the table and voices in their workplaces like you do.

A few years ago I was at a labor dinner in Cincinnati, and someone pointed out a table of women near the front, and said those women are custodial workers, and they just signed their first union contract with SEIU.

I sat down at their table to talk with them, and asked them, what does having a union mean to you?

One woman looked me in the eye and said, I’m more than 50 years old. I’ve worked my whole life. This will be the first time I’ve ever had a one-week paid vacation.

I’m proud to be joined today by President Roberts, Mike Walden, and Dave Dilly.

Thanks also to Teamsters Vice President John Murphy for being here.

And thank you to Norm Skinner, Phil Smith, and all of the mineworkers – not just for being here today, but for all the work you do.

If these guys look familiar, that’s because they’ve spent years traveling back and forth to Washington fighting for the retirement they earned.

If you cover Congress on a regular basis, I bet you’ve seen dozens of the black and yellow Teamsters shirts Mike has on today. 

And at times, it seems like a week doesn’t go by without seeing the trademark camo t-shirts of the United Mine Workers around the Capitol grounds.

Many of you have helped to tell their stories. Good journalism and good politics are so often about telling the stories of people who have no other voice.

These folks have come to Washington by the busload, demanding their government work for them.

We’re not talking about wealthy people who have a lot of money to throw around. Most of these retirees couldn’t afford plane tickets back and forth to Washington. They carpooled and rode all night on buses, sometimes turning around at the end of the day to ride all night back home.

They’ve stood for hours in the D.C. summer heat and waited in line in the bitter winter cold to get through security.

They represent more than 1.5 million workers and retirees. They come from every state in our country. They all are at risk of losing the retirement they earned over a lifetime of work, if Congress fails to act. 

And their advocacy has brought us to where we are today.

During the budget negotiations at the beginning of the year, I brought together a group of Senators, and we made it clear to leaders in Congress that we had to have a solution for these workers and their families.

If we couldn’t pass something immediately, we pressed for a bipartisan committee to negotiate something that could pass both houses of Congress this year.

That’s why in February, Congress created the Joint Select Committee on the Solvency of Multiemployer Pension Plans as part of the bipartisan budget deal.

I am Co-Chairing that committee, along with my friend Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah – believe it or not, we have had a very good working relationship, and I know that will benefit the work of this committee.

The committee has 16 members, eight from each party, eight from each house of Congress.

We’re required to report out a solution by the end of the year. And we’ve been given some extraordinary powers. A bill that we report out with strong bipartisan support – with five votes from each party – will receive an up or down vote on the Senate Floor.

Senators won’t be able to attach so-called poison pill amendments that are designed to kill bipartisan compromise.

We will hold a series of public hearings, and we expect at least one of those hearings to be outside Washington. Not everyone can take time off of work, or time off from caring for a relative, and get on a bus to Washington – this will give them a chance to make their voices heard.

Now before you roll your eyes at the thought of another Congressional super committee, let me tell you why I’m optimistic this committee will be a success.

We held our first formal meeting last month. And if any of you were covering it, you saw how serious members on both sides of the dais are about working in good faith to solve this crisis – members like Senator Hatch and my fellow Ohioan Rob Portman, along with folks who have been leading this effort in the House like Richie Neal, Bobby Scott, and Phil Roe.

And that support goes beyond just the Committee members.

Our first formal meeting may have been last month. But my staff and I have been meeting with other offices for nearly a year. Senators like Ron Johnson, Tammy Baldwin, and Joe Donnelly have all stepped up to lead on this issue, along with fellow Ohioan Marcy Kaptur in the House.

We have the support of groups as diverse as the Chamber of Commerce and the AARP. Large corporations and small businesses are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Unions, all pushing for a solution.

Because this crisis demands it. It threatens retirees, small businesses, and workers. It threatens Republicans and Democrats, Independents and people who don’t vote.

The largest of these plans is Central States Teamsters. There are nearly 50,000 participants in my home state of Ohio. And there are also:

  • 32,000 participants in Missouri,
  • 25,000 in Texas,
  • 20,000 in Florida,
  • 16,000 in Tennessee,
  • 14,000 in Kentucky,
  • 13,000 in Georgia,
  • 10,000 in Iowa.

And that’s just one plan. There are more than 100 plans on the brink of failure, with members in every single state in the country, putting the economic vitality of entire communities at risk. There is not a lawmaker in Congress whose constituents are not affected in some way.  

This crisis threatens thousands of workers and businesses in the Speaker’s state and in the states of the majority and minority leaders in both chambers.

That is why we were able to secure the creation of this Committee – because the people we serve demanded it.

And that is why we will be successful – because people like Mike and Dave and their fellow workers and retirees from across the country will not give up. They will continue getting on those buses and standing in the DC summer heat to hold their government accountable. 

As a Teamster retiree at Local 377 in Youngstown, Ohio, told me, “We did our part, now it’s time for members of congress to cross party lines and do theirs.”

And I believe we will.

So that’s where we are. But how did we get here?

Multiemployer pension plans are retirement plans that cover workers, pensioners, and their families in specific industries. These plans are jointly run by employers and labor unions.

In these types of plans, companies join together to pool their resources and lower costs – many of them are small, family-run businesses that want to offer retirement security to their workers, but can’t afford to set up a pension plan on their own.

Often they’re in industries like construction and the building trades, where workers change employers frequently and need a portable pension solution.

By joining with other businesses, companies thought they were guaranteeing their workers a secure retirement, because experienced trustees were supposed to manage the investment.

Some of you may be in a union. Maybe you’ve even sat around a bargaining table at some point. But far too many in Washington don’t understand how this process works.

Workers in these plans sat at negotiating tables and sacrificed pay and other benefits in the short-term, in order to guarantee a pension when they retire.

Too many in Washington don’t understand that these workers earned their pensions, and they gave up pay to do it – that they paid into this system for years.

Now they are at risk of not seeing a dime of that money because many of these plans are running out of funds.

And it isn’t just retirees who will feel the pain.

Small businesses are at risk of collapsing if they end up on the hook for pension liability they can’t afford to pay.

And current workers are paying into and counting on these pensions too. They have already made real sacrifices at the bargaining table.

Each plan is different and there are many factors that played a role in getting them to this place. These are the same industries that have been affected by decades of bad trade deals, outsourcing of jobs, and general shifts in the American economy.

But there’s no question that the economic collapse of 2008, brought on by Wall Street greed, devastated these plans and the people and businesses who depend on them.

Even the coalminers pension – an industry that has been badly hurt over the past few decades – was nearly 90 percent funded before the financial crisis.

If these plans fail, taking thousands of businesses and jobs with them, the government insurance plan, known as the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, is supposed to step in.

Here’s the problem: that insurance program is also on the brink of failure.

It’s $67 billion in the red, with just $2 billion in assets.

So, the moment the first pension plan fails, the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation will fail.

Then it will be up to Congress to step in, or allow the entire multiemployer pension system to fail – eviscerating the retirement of 10.1 million American workers and retirees, and forcing American businesses to file bankruptcy, lay off workers, and close their doors.

As dysfunctional as Washington is, I don’t see a scenario where Congress allows that type of devastation without stepping in.

The question is, do we do it now, when we can still save the businesses, the jobs, and the pensions? Or do we wait until after that devastation has already occurred?

One way or another, we will do something. And the problem only gets more and more expensive to fix the longer we wait.

To folks in Akron or Coshocton County – where Mike and Dave are from – it sounds pretty cut and dry.

And it is. Congress must act, and we must act before the end of this year.

Congress already tried skirting its responsibility once, and it didn’t work.  

In 2015, in the dead of night – without a single public hearing, or even a bill introduced – a new policy was slipped into the Omnibus bill. That policy was signed into law. And it allows multiemployer pension plans apply to cut the benefits workers and retirees earned, in an attempt to stay solvent.

The first plan to apply was the Central States Teamsters plan. They proposed cutting benefits by up to 70 percent. That’s right, 70 percent.

Remember, these are plans retirees paid into for decades, benefits they gave up pay for, benefits they counted on and budgeted for, benefits they earned to care for themselves and their families.

Ask yourself, if you got a letter in the mail today informing you that your monthly paycheck was about to be cut by 70 percent, what would you do?

Maybe you could get a new job. But these folks already spent decades working, often wearing out their bodies in the process – truck drivers, construction workers, coal miners, manufacturers.

Luckily, Central States’ planned cuts were rejected.

Why? Because even after slashing these retirees’ pension plans by up to 70 percent – forcing them into poverty and likely onto government assistance – even after all that, the actuary said there was still just a 50/50 chance the plan would become solvent. A coin flip.

Forcing workers and retirees to carry this burden alone doesn’t work. Congress must act.   

One of the retirees who did get a letter in the mail saying his retirement would be cut by as much as 70 percent was Mike’s friend, Butch Lewis.

Like Mike and Dave and so many others, Butch was a Veteran. He served in Vietnam. He drove truck for 40 years. And he was the head of Teamsters Local 100, in Evendale, Ohio.

When he got that letter in the mail, he joined with Mike Walden and started to fight.

But his fight was cut short far too soon.

Butch passed away on New Year’s Eve, 2015. If his wife Rita were here today, she would tell you that doctors attributed his stroke to stress – stress from his fight for these pensions, not just for himself, but for his fellow retirees.

Now, Rita and Mike carry on his fight with an army of Teamsters and Mineworkers and others alongside them.

Earlier this year Rita told me, “It’s like we are invisible.”

People I meet all over Ohio feel invisible. They don’t feel like their work is valued. They feel like Washington ignores them.

And all too often, they’re right.

The average retiree in one of these plans is owed just over a $1,000 a month. For miners, it’s just $500. For others, even less.

The average person in the top one percent – we’re talking millionaires in the very top tax bracket – will get what amounts to $5,091 a month from the tax bill Congress just passed.

If Rita were here today, she’d remind us that the workers and retirees who paid into these plans are taxpayers too. In 2015, multiemployer pension participants paid more than $35 billion in federal taxes.

The Chamber of Commerce – which is lobbying heavily for a solution – notes that the multiemployer pension system contributed $2.2 trillion in economic activity to the U.S. economy in 2015.

I have spent time with Ohio businesses who have done everything right, but are being punished because their business thrived while so many of their competitors failed.

Those small businesses can’t publicly say what keeps them up at night: the fear that if the multiemployer pension plan that they are part of fails, their business will fail.

They can’t tell their customers, their workers – and most importantly, their creditors – that their pension plan could be failing, without losing their ability to get loans and risking the businesses they’ve worked so hard to build.

But you can. You can tell their stories.

This issue cuts to the heart of who we are as a country.

People of both political parties talk about the American Dream – about the idea that if you work hard, you can earn your way to a better life.

These Americans worked hard. They earned a living and they earned a secure retirement.

As Mike told me once: “I’ve never asked for anything from this country, but I don’t want to see my country take away something we’ve worked hard for and earned.”

If we break this promise to people like Mike, how can we look our children in the eye and tell them, if you work hard, if you get a good job, you’ll be able to make it in this country?

Butch Lewis said the choices being forced on retirees amount to a war against the middle class and the American Dream – and he’s right.

That’s what our job is on the pensions committee.

At a time when there isn’t much cooperation across the aisle, this is something we ought to be able to solve, together.

We should all be able to come together to affirm the principle that hard work should pay off.

And I believe we will.

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