COLUMBUS — Thousands rallied on the lawn of the Ohio Statehouse Thursday in advance of a congressional hearing Friday seeking a way to save private pensions considered to be on the brink of failure.
If pensions that have not recovered from the 2008 recession should go under, some 1.3 million retirees nationally, including some 66,000 in Ohio, could lose their benefits entirely or see them cut.
“An attack on one worker is an attack on all workers, and seeing working people come together to fight for what’s right, to have the American people rally with us to protect the benefits we’ve earned is a beautiful thing,” AFL-CIO President Tim Burga told the crowd that filled the lawn in front of the Statehouse and wound around both sides of the building.
“Nothing is more sacred than the promise of a secure retirement after a lifetime of hard work,” he said.
Taxpayers could also find themselves on the hook if the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. that insures such pension plans should collapse under the weight of failing systems. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated the tab to taxpayers could be $101 billion over 20 years.
In a rare hearing on the road to be held Friday at the Statehouse, the 16-member House and Senate Joint Select Committee on Pensions, co-chaired by Sens. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio) and Orrin Hatch (R., Utah), will hear testimony from workers, businesses, and union officials on the potential impacts.
The committee, on which U.S. Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio) also serves, is charged with coming up with a potential fix to the problem to be presented to Congress by late November.
The affected union pension funds affect coal miners, truckers, bakers, carpenters, and others.
Dean Mahoney, a traveling band percussionist from Poughkeepsie, N.Y., hopes to join the American Federation of Musicians. He said he and the band’s bassist thought it was important that they participate in a rally in Columbus even as decisions will ultimately be made in Washington.
“We’re in a pension crisis,” he said. “My generation is working as hard as we can into a pension system we’re worried isn’t going to be around. We can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.
“We can’t get rid of pensions for generations that have worked for them, because then where’s the solidarity for us younger workers?” he asked. “If we can’t be in it altogether, there’s no fight.”
The Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers International Union supports the idea behind the proposed Butch Lewis Act, a Brown-sponsored bill named for a retired Teamster from West Chester who died while battling cuts to the union’s pensions.
“Sherrod Brown’s bill — the Butch Lewis approach, the long-term, low-interest loan approach — works best for our fund and would be most effective in resolving the problems our fund faces,” Harry Kaiser, the union’s assistant to the president, said prior to the rally.
It was clear among the signs carried at the rally outside that many in the crowd agreed with him.
Union President David Durkee stressed the bill does not represent a bailout. The bill would provide for long-term loans that would be repaid by the unions and ultimately their members.
“We’re fighting for what we think we can get,” he said. “We’re trying to gauge the appetite of Congress. What will help these retirees continue with their present retirement benefits? I think if we went to Congress and said we want a bailout, they’re not even going to listen to us.”
Friday’s hearing will mark the committee’s fifth and its first on the road outside of Washington.
Among those expected to testify are two witnesses from northwest Ohio: Bill Martin, president of Spangler Candy Company in Bryan and Roberta Dell, the chief union steward.
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