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: The truckers’ triumph: The incredible story of how a scrappy group of blue-collar retirees rescued their pensions

After a long, loud battle, the victory has come quietly. Over the past few months, deposits have started appearing in the accounts of former truckers, iron workers and other retirees across the country–restoring pension benefits that these people had earned after decades working some of America’s most back-breaking jobs, only to have them ripped away in their retirement years.

The restored benefits started flowing earlier this year to retired union workers from New Jersey to California and have accelerated this spring and summer, hitting the accounts of some retired truckers in March, Cleveland iron workers in June, and some transportation-industry retirees in July. They are the crowning achievement of a nearly decade-long grassroots campaign by retirees in troubled multiemployer pension plans, which are negotiated between unions and employers and cover nearly 11 million people in construction, trucking, manufacturing and other industries. After a 2013 report from a coalition of roughly 40 large employers, unions, and pension plans first floated the idea of allowing the plans to slash the benefits of current retirees, those retirees swung into action. They called their elected representatives, learned the inner workings of Congress, made regular trips to Washington, DC, and ultimately got a pension-rescue bill passed that was named after one of their own: Estil “Butch” Lewis, a decorated Vietnam veteran and retired trucker who died two months after receiving a 2015 notice that his pension benefit would be cut sharply. 

Mike Walden, another Vietnam veteran, retired trucker and friend of Lewis’s who would become a central figure in the grassroots effort, was himself facing a 55% benefit cut. But it was the plight of other retirees who were at risk of losing their homes and everything they’d worked for that “was just devastating to me. It got into my heart,” said Walden, 73, of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. “Eventually I didn’t care about mine, I cared about theirs, and I had to get this fight done no matter what it took. I had no idea it was going to last nine years.” 

“We had a shoestring budget, and we were relentless walking the halls” of Congress, said Rita Lewis, Butch Lewis’s widow. Within a couple of months after her husband’s sudden death of a stroke at age 64, Lewis was testifying at a Senate Finance Committee hearing on the pension issue and pounding the pavement in D.C. “Blisters on your feet from walking the halls, being bone tired at the end of the day,” recalls Lewis, 69, of West Chester, Ohio. “But it was worth it. I was not going to go down without a fight.” 

The Butch Lewis Emergency Pension Plan Relief Act allows certain underfunded multiemployer plans to apply for taxpayer-funded financial assistance to stabilize their financial position and restore benefits previously cut. The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., the federal agency overseeing the program, has already approved over $7.4 billion in financial assistance for plans covering nearly 149,000 people. More than 20 plans that previously cut benefits have so far been approved for financial relief that allows them to restore the full monthly payments participants earned. President Joe Biden heralded the finalization of rules for the financial assistance program earlier this month at a Cleveland event attended by Lewis, Walden, and many others involved in the movement.   

Without the grassroots effort, “this was going nowhere,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio, who first introduced the Butch Lewis Act in 2017 and last reintroduced it in early 2021, when it ultimately passed as part of the American Rescue Plan. The plan was opposed by many Congressional Republicans and conservative think tanks, who said it was a bailout that forced taxpayers to foot the bill for broken pension promises without holding mismanaged plans accountable. Plans should have acted sooner, critics said, to address their funding shortfalls, which stemmed from investment losses, employer withdrawals from the plans and other factors. But the retirees said they were just asking for the money they’d earned, and sporting their union gear—camouflage United Mine Workers of America t-shirts, black Teamsters shirts—they became ubiquitous on Capitol Hill. Their visibility and involvement proved critical, those involved in crafting the legislation say. “I have not done a bill that has been more deeply based upon constituent outreach and engagement,” said one longtime Hill aide. 

The new law is “a tremendous victory for workers and retirees across the country,” said Karen Friedman, executive director of the Pension Rights Center, a nonprofit consumer organization. In many cases, plans that get the new financial relief will restore retirees’ benefits to prior levels as well as paying them back for years worth of benefit reductions. But the retirees’ victory isn’t complete. Some say they can’t be fully compensated for what they’ve lost–time foregone with families because they couldn’t afford to travel or take vacation, homes they’ve been forced to sell, their health deteriorating as the pension stress dragged on. And some who have lost spouses along the way may not be compensated for years of lost benefits. The language of the law indicates that the surviving spouses of plan participants who died after their benefits were cut but before their plans received the financial assistance are not eligible for make-up payments for the participant’s benefit reductions, according to the Pension Rights Center. 

‘We’re going to continue this fight. Just hang in there with me.’

Mike Walden, the retired trucker in Ohio, had been attending the casual meetings of an Akron retirees’ club when he caught wind of the 2013 report–a collaboration of heavy-hitting groups like the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and Service Employees International Union–proposing that deeply troubled multiemployer plans be allowed to slash the benefits of current retirees. “I didn’t like that at all,” he said, and immediately started trying to fight the plan. At the time, he said, he barely knew the difference between a state senator and a U.S. senator, and he’d watch C-Span to learn how Congress works. 

By spring of 2014, Walden and other Ohio retirees had formed an Akron-area committee to protect pensions. But later that year, they “got ambushed,” Walden said, by a provision stuck into a massive omnibus spending bill, which allowed certain underfunded multiemployer plans to reduce current retirees’ benefits. That was particularly bad news for Walden, Lewis, and other retirees in the Central States, Southeast and Southwest Areas Pension Fund, which was severely underfunded. In the fall of 2015, the dreaded letters arrived, informing many Central States retirees that their benefits would be cut. 

Mike Walden, shown last year with an award presented to him by a retirees’ club.

Courtesy of Mike Walden

Multiemployer plans had been hammered by the bursting of the dot-com bubble, the global financial crisis, a decline in unionized workers, and employer withdrawals from the plans. Some aimed to remain solvent under the 2014 law that allowed them to cut the benefits of current retirees. Others became insolvent, triggering benefit reductions to PBGC guarantee levels–meaning drastic benefit cuts for some retirees. The cuts were a particular blow to retirees who had sacrificed wages over decades during their working lives in exchange for growing their pensions. Unions “give up wages at the bargaining table today to build pensions for tomorrow,” Sen. Brown said. 

Rita Lewis was wondering what would happen to the home where she and Butch had raised their children. “This was the only home they ever knew,” she said. “This was our roots and wings.” Butch Lewis, who had been president of the Teamsters Local 100 in Cincinnati, was getting calls at all hours of the day and night from other retirees panicked about the threatened cuts, Rita Lewis said. “I’d find him sitting up in the family room in the wee hours of the morning,” she said. The pain of all the stories he was hearing, she said, “took a toll on him.” 

A couple of months later, after Butch’s death, Rita called Walden in despair, she said, fearing that having lost her husband, she’d also lose her house and everything else. “I was ready to give up on life,” she said. Walden told her, “we’re not going to let Butch down or anybody down,” she recalls. “We’re going to continue this fight. Just hang in there with me.” 

“ “I have not done a bill that has been more deeply based upon constituent outreach and engagement.” ”

Many other retirees were ready to fight too. When the benefit cuts were threatened, “we immediately got involved” in the grassroots effort, said Dana Vargo, 70, of Massillon, Ohio. Vargo’s husband Don, a retired trucker, was facing a more than 50% cut in his Central States benefit, she said. “We just started going to Washington and having meetings all over the country.” 

An April 2016 rally at the U.S. Capitol to protest pension cuts drew thousands of retirees. The following month, the Treasury Department rejected the Central States plan’s application to cut benefits, saying the reductions weren’t reasonably estimated to allow the plan to avoid insolvency, among other issues. The plan’s future remained far from certain, and the retirees doubled down on the fight. That same year, they formed the National United Committee to Protect Pensions (NUCPP), with Walden as president. 

Dana Vargo, the group’s secretary, helped keep the organization’s hundreds of “pension warriors” informed, organizing calls and emails to members of Congress and recruiting groups of retirees for lobbying trips to D.C. “At first it was like, ‘this is cool, we’re going to Washington and meeting with legislators,’” she said. “Until it wasn’t so cool. You’re walking the halls day after day, walking in these offices and no one wants to take the time to talk to you.” 

Meanwhile, more plans were cutting retirees’ benefits, and more retirees were joining the fight. Anthony Caporino, a warehouse worker, had his benefit slashed as the Road Carriers Local 707 plan became insolvent in 2017. He immediately began looking for work, but unable to find a job near his North Carolina home, he wound up taking a job in Pennsylvania. He and his wife, Laura, drove seven or eight hours to see each other on weekends. The couple got involved with the grassroots movement, writing letters, making phone calls, and traveling to D.C.–even though it seemed hopeless. “Honest to god,” Laura Caporino said, “I never thought we’d get the pension back.”  

The retirees’ persistence and in-depth knowledge of the pension issue, however, left an impression on Hill staff. Members of the NUCPP and other retiree groups “were consistently at our Thursday constituent coffees,” said an aide for Sen. Brown. Walden and other retirees who played central roles in the grassroots effort, the aide said, “know the ins and outs of this better than your average Hill staffer.” 

Whenever retirees came to Walden in despair, he said, he’d tell them, “just relax. Just fight. Write a letter. Call somebody. Do something.” 

For Neil Kearney, 75, a retired trucker in Livingston, N.J., the “killer letter” came on Friday, July 6, 2018, just as he was starting his annual Jersey shore vacation with his children and grandchildren. “My legs turned to water,” said Kearney. In spring 2019, his benefits were cut 56%, he said, and he hasn’t been back on a Jersey shore vacation since then. “There’s not much I could do from New Jersey,” Kearney said, “other than write a lot of letters and emails and phone Senators’ offices and rally the troops.” 

Others assumed that no one was coming to the rescue. After decades as an iron worker, Bill DeVito of Berea, Ohio, retired in 2012. In 2017, his pension benefit was cut more than 40%. “Big banks and businesses get help,” he said. “But regular, blue-collar guys? Forget it.” 

‘My legs turned to water,’ New Jersey retiree Neil Kearney said, when he learned that his pension benefit would be cut.

Courtesy Neil Kearney

‘We got our dignity back’

Five years later, in July of this year, DeVito was standing on a stage in Cleveland, Ohio, introducing the president of the United States. After the Butch Lewis Act’s passage in March 2021, the PBGC had formulated rules for the financial assistance program and started processing plans’ applications–and now, the checks were rolling in. DeVito’s plan, Iron Workers Local 17 Pension Fund, was approved for financial assistance in May, and his earned monthly benefit was restored in June. “Some days it feels like the odds are stacked against us,” he told the crowd in Cleveland, just before introducing Biden. “It’s pretty incredible,” he said, to have such a happy ending to the pension saga. 

“I’m still pinching myself,” Lewis said. “We got our dignity back.” 

After the Caporinos, the North Carolina couple, got their benefits restored in March, Anthony has shifted from full-time to part-time work, and Laura is thinking of retiring earlier than planned, she said. Kearney, the New Jersey retired trucker, expects to get his benefits restored in the coming weeks. 

“It’s just surreal,” said Carol Podesta-Smallen of Garfield, NJ, whose pension benefit was slashed by about 60% in 2019. Podesta-Smallen told MarketWatch last year about the financial fallout of the benefit cut–including being forced to sell her house in the middle of the pandemic and accumulating medical debt. Earlier this month, her full monthly benefit was deposited in her account and she received a lump sum to compensate her for the benefits lost over the past 3.5 years. 

The money comes just in time, she said, because her rent is going up, and she needs costly surgery and to pay down debt. But it’s hard to let go of the financial anxiety, she said, that was caused by the sudden loss of her benefits. “Just as they promised my forever pension many years ago and broke that promise,” she said, “they could break this promise too.” 

The law’s impact stretches well beyond the retirees. As the U.S. Chamber of Commerce put it in a 2017 report, massive failures in the multiemployer plan system would bankrupt the PBGC and damage the entire economy. Already, the greater pension stability afforded by the Butch Lewis Act has given Spangler Candy Company in Bryan, Ohio, maker of Dum Dums lollipops and an employer in the troubled Central States multiemployer plan, the confidence to add about 40 new jobs, said Bill Martin, Spangler’s president. “What a great thing for our little community,” he said. 

Concerns, however, remain about the treatment of some widows and widowers under the financial assistance program. One of those widows is Dale Verga, 73, of Lakewood, N.J. Verga’s husband, Alfred, as a young man survived a near-fatal on-the-job accident that burned more than 80% of his body. Alfred went on to work more than 30 years as a mechanic for a truck leasing company. About a dozen years into his retirement, in 2019, he was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. In March of the following year, his pension plan, the Teamsters Local 617 Pension Fund, became insolvent and sliced benefits to PBGC-guaranteed levels–which meant a roughly 75% benefit reduction for the Vergas. 

The Vergas gave up all non-essential spending and focused on getting Alfred the chemotherapy and blood transfusions he needed, Dale Verga said. After fighting the cancer for nearly three years, Alfred died in February 2022, just a few months before the Teamsters Local 617 plan received financial assistance under the Butch Lewis Act. Despite the drastic benefit cuts the Vergas suffered between March 2020 and May of this year, Dale will receive no make-up payments for benefits lost during her husband’s lifetime, according to a May letter the plan sent to Dale. The letter stipulated that Dale will only receive two months’ worth of make-up payments for March and April of this year and restoration of her benefit going forward to the 50% spousal benefit she was promised. 

The Local 617 plan did not respond to a request for comment. The law says that make-up payments should be made to participants or beneficiaries “in pay status”–currently receiving benefits–when the financial assistance becomes effective. The survivor benefit and participant benefit are considered separate benefits under federal law, according to Norman Stein, a Drexel University law professor and senior policy advisor at the Pension Rights Center. The situation is an “arguably unfair result,” he said, “but not the plan’s fault.” 

“We were married 51.5 years,” Dale Verga said, and over the years Alfred had forfeited raises so he could add to his pension. “I think they are trying to cut corners, and it is so unfair.” 

Watching the celebratory announcements of the finalization of the pension rescue plan, she said, “I’d like to reach out and say, ‘what about me? What about me?’” 

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