The Electrical Worker online
February 2019

IBEW Leaders Mobilize on Capitol Hill to
Kill Pension Attack; Now It's Your Turn
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A threat to every pension in America rose up in Congress days before Thanksgiving, but a wave of IBEW activism helped kill it — for now.

But dead ideas that make a few wealthy people even wealthier never seem to stay dead, and as a new Congress takes charge in Washington, International President Lonnie R. Stephenson is asking every member of the IBEW to reach out to their representatives to demand it die for good.

The IBEW's nearly 120 separate pension plans are among the healthiest in the U.S., but a handful of multiemployer pensions in other industries are in trouble, and some of them are so large their collapse could bring down the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, which functions as a backstop for every other fund.

It's a slow-burning problem. Pension administrators and regulators have watched it coming for years, but no one has come up with a solution. The emergency isn't here yet, but solving it gets more complicated and expensive every month a decision is put off.

Last spring, the Trump Administration proposed a disastrous response. At the time, Stephenson refused to even call it a proposed solution since it solved little, cost so much and left healthy pensions nearly crippled.

At its most basic level, Republicans proposed shifting the bill for the few unhealthy pensions onto the shoulders of healthy multiemployer pension plans — a group that included dozens of IBEW funds. Many of those pensions are just returning to solid ground a decade after the banks torched the economy and gutted them of billions of assets, and their healthy status reflects the sacrifices of members who chose to contribute more or work longer to save their pensions.

The plan would have saved the PBGC, but it would have ruined the pensions it insured, making them near worthless, dimes and nickels on the dollars promised. The entire cost of the sick plans would be borne by healthy plans even though healthy plans did nothing to cause the problem. The impact on the IBEW's plans would have been catastrophic.

"It's like saving a ship by throwing the passengers overboard," said International Secretary-Treasurer Kenny W. Cooper in February. "Just one part of the proposal would have cost just one of our plans — the National Electric Benefit Fund — $2 billion a year."

The untenable solution meant no help was coming for the nearly 100 plans still on the brink, most representing retirees from industries hollowed out by policies that left working people gasping, like unionized trucking, mining and food service. The plan died — at least it seemed to.

"We stopped them removing the tumor with a shotgun, but that doesn't mean the cancer has gone away," said Political and Legislative Department Director Austin Keyser. "We still need a solution."

Congress then did something smart. It created a special committee composed of House and Senate members from both parties in April, called it the Joint Select Committee on the Solvency of Multiemployer Pension Plans and gave it a Nov. 30, 2018 deadline. There was hope that the size of the problem and its growing costs might overcome the entrenched partisanship of the 115th Congress. One of its co-chairs, Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, expressed guarded optimism.

"This is not a partisan issue," Brown said in the committee's opening session. "We need to lock arms to reach the solution for workers and businesses who did things right. They are not looking for a handout or a bailout; they're asking for what they earned."

Membership included Folsom, N.J., Local 351's Rep. Donald Norcross, the only electrician in Congress.

After months of hearings across the country, the committee's November deadline loomed with no word about its proposal. Keyser began to hear rumblings that the recommendation was coming, and it would look almost exactly like the one that had been killed in February.

"The zombie was back," he said. "That's when President Stephenson and Secretary-Treasurer Cooper put out the call."

Within 24 hours, Keyser's staff arranged more than 300 meetings in the House and Senate, almost 60 percent of all members. IBEW leadership flew in from nearly every state. They were handed a schedule, talking points and an information packet for every office they visited, from now-Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Texas Republican Rep. Michael Burgess.

Stephenson himself made his case to Brown and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

"We didn't just tell them what we wanted stopped," Stephenson said. "They needed to understand that there was a sensible proposal out there that everyone should get behind."

That proposal is the Butch Lewis Act, which would provide long-term, low-interest federal loans to troubled plans, similar to the rescue programs that were used to save insurer AIG in 2008 and the steel and airline industries before that. Cost estimates vary from $7 billion to $34 billion, but the number is far lower than the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program that bailed out the banks a decade ago or the $135 billion federal bailout of mortgage insurers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.

"And unlike the bank bailouts, the pensions plans would only receive federal loans that must be paid back," Cooper said.

Some of the offices were highly receptive, said San Francisco Local 6 Business Manager John Doherty, who visited the offices of Pelosi and California Reps. Pete Aguilar, Mike Thompson, John Garamendi and Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

"Some of them knew as much about this as I did. Some knew more," he said. "And for some, it was really important that we put this on their radar, so they knew to watch out for it. We've killed this proposal before. They have to expect it to come back again."

Such were the numbers that throughout the day, IBEW delegations passed one another in hallways. As the New Jersey delegation was headed into a meeting with Sen. Cory Booker, San Diego Local 569 Business Manager Nicholas Segura was headed to see Sen. Kamala Harris.

Milwaukee Local 494 Business Manager Dean Warsh crossed paths with Doherty early in the day.

Local 494's pension plan has been in recovery mode for a decade, Warsh said. If the Republican plan passed, they would go from perfect health to only 90 percent funded, suddenly subject to higher insurance fees that would make getting back where they were harder, if not impossible.

"We were at 100 percent before the crash and fell as low as 88 percent funded," Warsh said. "But we made the decision to shore up the fund and voted to put three times more in. We did the right thing. Now they want to do this?"

At the end of the day, Keyser said the feeling was that the bill was dead.

"Deals came undone," he said. "But we have seen some terrible things in spending bills that come up just as everyone is rushing home for the holidays. We cannot live with this, and it may come back."

"November was the first step in a correction," Rep. Norcross said of Democrats' House takeover on Election Day. "We have a lot of new friends up here."

The next job, Stephenson said, is to remind them who got them there.


The IBEW delegation came from all across the country, led by International President Lonnie R. Stephenson, International Secretary-Treasurer Kenneth W. Cooper and Political and Legislative Director Austin Keyser. Together, they met with more than 300 legislators from both sides of the aisle.

"This affects every member, so every member should make themselves heard. If all 775,000 of us visited a district office, that would be a thunderclap in the halls of power. Get up. Speak up. The men and women who built this union so we could have pensions faced far greater odds. This is our chance to pay it forward to the future."

– International President Lonnie R. Stephenson


Hundreds of IBEW leaders learned about the issues at stake and the IBEW's preferred path forward before they blitzed Capitol Hill to save multiemployer pension plans.


Lobbying from the IBEW and other labor unions killed the Republican plan that risked the future of all multiemployer pension plans, which cover hundreds of thousands of IBEW members and millions more Americans. But it might still come back.

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"The DC visits were crucial, but what we need now is for every IBEW member and retiree to get active on this issue at home," Keyser said.

Congressional staff in Washington, especially now — especially on the Republican side — are just not hearing union voices. They are often, he said, too caught up in the ideological forever war waged in the halls of Capitol Hill.

But in the districts, senators and representatives from every party just listen better, and as we have learned in recent decades, politicians of every stripe forget about working families unless they are reminded.

That is where the next phase of the effort to save American pensions has to focus.

"I urge every one of our members to get on the phone, or better yet, drive yourself down to the nearest district office and explain to them what it would mean if you only got 10 cents of every dollar on your pension," Stephenson said.

But once your personal story is told — and it is important that everyone start with the personal, he said — the next step is making a clear statement of what you want: The passage of the Butch Lewis Act.

There is no script for it, but keep these few points in mind:

The at-risk pension plans followed the rules and the instructions of professionals. They are in trouble for the same reason working people across the country are struggling: the disappearance of good, middle-class jobs.

Healthy union pension plans didn't cause the problem. They are only now recovering from the recession that the banks caused, and those banks got a bailout.

Not solving the looming crisis makes it worse, and the government is already on the hook.

The Butch Lewis Act is not a bailout. It authorizes loans that must and can be repaid by even the most endangered plans.

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