Bill Knight column for Mon, Tues., or Wed., Jan. 18, 19 or 20
Everyday people stood at microphones and shared their fears and tears and rage and more.
“Unless you have a heart of stone, you cannot help but be affected,” Feinberg said.
The U.S. Treasury Dept. is soliciting public comments at such meetings in Columbus and Milwaukee, St. Louis and Detroit, Indianapolis and Minneapolis before Feinberg rules on a September application by the Central States Pension Fund to drastically cut promised pensions in a “rescue plan” under the Multiemployer Pension Reform Act of 2014 to restore solvency to the troubled fund.
Although beneficiaries are mostly Teamsters, the Fund isn’t controlled by the union. Four trustees are appointed by the Teamsters International but four are named by participating employers.
It used to be illegal to cut promised pension benefits. But in 2014, Congress – after heavy lobbying by Central States, with no public hearings and no debate – changed that within a must-pass spending bill. That law lets multi-employer pension plans – set up to be jointly run by unions and employers – to apply to temporarily or permanently cut benefits.
Retirees were notified of the cut sought, and many are almost 60 percent of what they’d been promised.
Feinberg – the attorney who supervised the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and the program compensating families of 9/11 victims – told the downstate Illinois meeting that he’s heard three main responses from the public: Kill the proposal, the planned cuts are inequitable, and the procedure to permit participants to vote on the measure are unfair.
Under the law Congress passed, participants would have to vote online and a non-vote would count as a “Yes,” Feinberg said.
“We haven’t had many retirees who like the plan” he said. But “I’m obligated to follow the law.”
But the law isn’t just, all the retirees who spoke said.
Thomas Pilat objected to a lack of information to participants, the limited opportunity to comment and the Fund’s “unrealistic actuarial judgment.”
Judy Weeks said her family faces a 58.4 percent cut in a pension her household is counting on.
“Consider the impact of these cuts on local economies,” she told Feinberg.
Keith Gleason, president of Teamsters Local 627 in Peoria said though people are outraged about Congress’s action, the opposition isn’t political.
“This is not a partisan issue,” Gleason said. “If we asked for a show of hands in here, we’d probably have as many Republicans as Democrats. But Central States has the audacity to call these cuts a ‘rescue plan.’ This is going to be a disaster.”
Other comments were powerful: poignant and personal, angered and indomitable in a determination to stop the attack on their futures:
* “They’re changing the rules of the game after the game has already been played.”
* “Besides the retired workers, this is putting a lot of stress on whole families.”
* “If this goes through, my co-pay on insurance will eat up my whole pension.”
* “Their financial planning has been upside-down [and if it’s approved] my lifestyle is unsustainable.”
* “If this is OK’d, I’ll have to sell everything and live in a trailer, and I don’t mean a mobile home.”
* “There have been big bank bailouts. Throw us some scraps – bail out our pensions.”
* “Why is the little guy always paying? I’ve never begged in my life and I’m begging you: Stop this. This is a crisis.”
Under Central States’ proposed rescue plan, benefit reductions could become effective around July 1 if approved by Feinberg and plan participants, but Central States also noted “Treasury, by law, can override a negative participant vote and order the plan implemented and/or modified.”
Feinberg was not unsympathetic but stressed he is limited by the statute.
Asked how soon he may decide, he said, “No cuts can be made until I make my determination, so I’m in no hurry.”
Toward the end of the two-hour session, one man said he was praying for Feinberg’s compassion and another said, “You’re the last, best hope we’ve got.”
[PICTURED: Treasury's Feinberg at the meeting in Peoria last week. Photo by Bill Knight.]