Intensive lobbying by activists from the IBEW and other labor unions paid off on July 24 when a bipartisan majority in the U.S. House of Representatives approved the Rehabilitation for Multiemployer Pension Act by a vote of 264 to 169.
The legislation, which would restore retirement security to hundreds of thousands of working people in troubled multiemployer pension plans, is one of labor’s highest priorities.
“Nearly all of our own pension plans are in great financial shape,” said International President Lonnie R. Stephenson. “But a few plans for our brothers and sisters in the mining, trucking and other industries are in serious danger of going under, and that could drag healthy plans like ours down with it.”
H.R. 397, known informally as the Butch Lewis Act, calls for creating a Treasury agency to help keep troubled plans from insolvency through long-term, low-interest federal loans. Lewis was a Teamster whose death was blamed on the stress he experienced after his own local’s pension plan went bankrupt.
“This win is a clear victory in our long battle to protect workers’ pensions, but the fight is far from over,” International Secretary-Treasurer Kenneth W. Cooper said. “We can take a moment to congratulate ourselves, but we also need to gear up for the Senate fight that lies ahead.”
There are about 1,400 multiemployer pension plans in the U.S. Most are financially stable, but if just a few of the larger at-risk ones went under, it could effectively destroy the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, the federal agency covering pension plans that are no longer able to meet their obligations.
“Our plans are among the strongest in the nation and our members’ retirement savings are secure,” said Cooper, whose duties include oversight of the IBEW’s National Electrical Benefit Fund. “But we stand as always in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in other unions whose promised pensions are being threatened.”
The PBGC is healthy at the moment, but within the next few years more than 20 underfunded pension plans are predicted to need the agency’s help to survive. If enough of those plans need rescuing, it could wipe out the PBGC’s cash reserves, spelling the end of a comfortable retirement for millions of American workers and retirees. That’s why our union and others have been urgently lobbying legislators in the House and Senate for years to come up with a fair fix.
There have been a number of obstacles along the way. Last fall, for example, as a special congressional committee was considering a solution that would have unfairly penalized solvent plans, the IBEW’s Political and Legislative Affairs Department called on leaders from locals representing nearly every state in the union to come to Washington and meet members of the House and Senate. Stephenson and Cooper recorded a special video in which they urged all members to call their representatives and demand a just solution.
House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal of Massachusetts introduced H.R. 397 in January, and support for the act, from legislators and labor unions alike, gained momentum over the following months. On July 10, hundreds of activists representing the IBEW and other unions rallied on Capitol Hill in support of Neal’s measure as a key committee was set to consider it.
When the measure was at last scheduled for consideration by the full House on July 24, Rep. Haley Stevens of Michigan spoke passionately in favor of it.
“The bill before us today is not a bailout,” Stevens told her fellow members. “It is a backstop, and it is a solution to a boiling point that we ignore at the peril of more than a million workers who are now faced with financial catastrophe in retirement.”
In floor remarks of his own, Rep. Donald Norcross of New Jersey noted his 37 years of experience with multiemployer plans as an IBEW member and former business agent for Folsom, N.J., Local 351.
“I understand how they work,” he said. “These are deferred dreams, deferred wages that [workers] said they’ll put aside during their active career so that they can live out the American dream.”
Rather than being a handout, the Butch Lewis Act is “about doing the right thing,” Norcross said.
“The people that earned these [pensions] … played by the rules,” he said. “It’s important for us to pass this because they did nothing wrong.”
Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio introduced Senate Bill 2254, the Butch Lewis Act, in the upper chamber at the end of July. Members and their families are urged to contact their senators and demand they stand up for working people’s retirement security.
Watch IBEW.org for updates and to find out more about how you can help as the effort to protect retirement security moves to the Senate.