AKRON  --U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown hopes Congress will resolve the crisis involving multiemployer pension plans before the year ends.

On Thursday morning, Brown and Mike Walden, president of the National United Committee to Protect Pensions, reviewed Congressional efforts to resolve pension problems during a meeting at United Steelworkers Local 2 offices. More than 100 retirees representing a half-dozen unions attended.

Brown, a Democrat from Cleveland who is co-chairman along with Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah of a newly created a bi-partisan committee, is optimistic Congress can devise a plan to protect the pensions and keep them funded.

Congress has been debating bills aimed at protecting multiemployer pensions for several years. Last year, Brown introduced the Butch Lewis Act, named for the former leader of Teamsters Local 100 who lived in West Chester, with the hope of establishing a plan to help fund struggling pensions.

Declining union membership, fewer contributing companies and a growing number of retirees are cited as reasons large multiemployer pensions are running short on funds. The economic collapse in 2007 and 2008 also is cited as a factor. A bill Congress passed in December 2014 allowed pension plans that anticipate running out of money to seek permission to cut benefits. Some pension funds have reduced benefits promised to retirees, in some cases cutting the monthly payout by half or more.

Central States

Participants in the Teamsters' Central States pension fund challenged cuts proposed in 2015. The fund predicted it would run out of money in 2026 and asked permission to reduce benefits. Nearly 400,000 people around the county are part of the pension fund, and it's estimated that 8,500 people covered by the Central States plan live in or around Stark County.

If the Central States fund or other large pension plans run out of money, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., a federal program created to cover failed pension plans, would be called on to provide benefits. There are concerns the PBGC would be overwhelmed if Central States or another pension failed.

The new committee was created when Congress passed a budget compromise last week. Eight senators and eight members of the House — equally split between Republicans and Democrats — will work to have a bill prepared by November.

"I want it to be as much like the Butch Lewis Act as possible," Brown said, although he doesn't expect final bill will match the act.

The Butch Lewis Act proposed creating a Pension Rehabilitation Administration as part of the Treasury Department and selling Treasury-issued bonds to help finance loans to the pension plans. Brown said the act had bi-partisan support in the House, but no Republican support in the Senate.

While the committee isn't the plan Brown and others wanted, it does force Congress to treat the pension crisis "with the seriousness and urgency American workers deserve," Brown said in a statement.
Public hearings expected

During Thursday's meeting Brown contended that some Congressional members fail to realize that union members bargained contracts and gave up wages in order to ensure a secure pension when they retired. Workers were responsible when they bargained "by giving up dollars then to prepare for the future," Brown said.

Walden, who is retired from Teamsters Local 24 in Akron, said retirees are seeking solutions, not a bailout. While some have complained that taxes shouldn't be used to help the pension plans, Walden noted that the retirees are taxpayers. "Some of our taxes go to things we don't like," he said.

The new committee has had one formal meeting and some unofficial sessions. The committee will be required to hold at least five public meetings and has the option of holding hearings outside of Washington, D.C., which would allow committee members to hear directly from retirees, workers and businesses affected by the crisis. Brown said he hopes one of the sessions can be in Ohio.

It's estimated that 60,000 Ohio residents and more that 1.5 million workers and retirees around the country are directly impacted by the situation. In addition to Central States, other pension funds that could run out of money include the United Mine Workers Pension Plan, the Ohio Southwest Carpenters Pension Plan and the Bakers and Confectioners Pension Plan, while the Ironworkers Local 17 pension fund already had cut retiree benefits.

If pension plans aren't supported, the impact could be broad, Brown and Walden said. "This is going to trickle down to everybody if this isn't done," Walden said.