CAPITAL REGION — Cuts made last year in the pension payments to retired Teamsters could be restored under federal legislation being touted by U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer.
Schumer, D-N.Y., came to Albany on Monday to advocate for legislation shoring up the finances of the struggling Teamsters pension fund, so it and other multi-employer pension funds can continue to pay promised benefits.
The proposed Butch Lewis Act would establish a new office of pension rehabilitation administration within the Department of the Treasury that would have the ability to lend money to troubled pension plans to keep them solvent, financing the loans by selling U.S. Treasury bonds on the open market.
"I am confident that with this bill, we could put multi-employer pension plans back on track and prevent further drastic cuts to retirees' hard-earned savings, including those here in the Capital Region," said Schumer, the Senate minority leader, during an appearance at the Teamsters' "Labor Temple" in Albany.
Approximately 5,500 Capital Region Teamsters from Local 294 are participants in the Teamsters national fund, including 2,400 retirees and more than 3,100 active members.
After a vote in September — from which many union members abstained — the New York State Teamster Conference Pension and Retirement Fund cut benefits by up to several thousand dollars per year per retiree, with the pension's funding shortfall being blamed on poor stock market returns following the 2008 recession. Statewide, the pension fund represents 16,000 retirees and 18,000 active members.
“For years, these plans offered working families a nest egg in their retirement," Schumer said. "But today, everything has changed, with pension plans being slashed and with the risk of future, deeper cuts. Teamsters in the Capital Region paid into this program with the promise that they would be able to retire with financial security. Now thousands of Teamsters are facing a financial nightmare — cuts to their hard-earned retirement savings they depend on."
Butch Lewis, for whom the legislation is named, was a retired Teamsters local president from Ohio who advocated for pension reform and who died in 2015. U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, was the bill's original sponsor.
"This would reinstate the cuts that were made," said John Bulgaro, president of Albany-headquartered Teamsters Local 294. "(Schumer) is confident we can get something done on it, so we're supporting the senator's proposal."
Bulgaro said there are other proposals and Teamsters don't know which one — or what combination of proposals — will provide a solution. The majority of support for the act is coming from Democrats, who still must persuade most of the Republican majorities in the House and Senate to consider it.
"We're in favor of any plan that can reinstate the cuts that were put in place," Bulgaro said. "This is a nationwide problem and not just a Teamster problem. It applies to any of the multi-employer pension funds."
Other multi-employer funds facing similar financial problems include the United Mine Workers pension fund.
Deregulation of the trucking industry in the 1990s hurt Teamster benefits, Bulgaro said, as did changes in pension liability he said were made without considering the financial impacts.
Multi-employer pension funds are governed by boards that are balanced equally between labor and employer representatives, said Bulgaro, who is a pension trustee.
"It's been very difficult for me for the simple reason that a lot of these other guys are getting pensions from $800 to $1,000 a month, and then you're cutting it," said retired UPS employee and pension advocate Joe Ready of Leeds in Greene County. "The majority of these people don't receive a big pension."
"Say this doesn't go through. Say there's a million Teamsters. If they don't have this, they go on food stamps and welfare," Ready said.