Union Workers Take to Ohio Statehouse to Fight for Their Pensions

Jul 12, 2018

Thousands of union workers and retirees flocked to the Statehouse from around the country. They’re rallying in Columbus for a fix to what they see as a national pension crisis – the day before a field hearing by a Congressional committee examining the issue. The labor groups say, without a change, their funds will dry up.

Teamsters, coal miners, and workers from various other industries are calling on Congress to pass a bill that will save their pensions.

The rally comes ahead of a special Congressional committee meeting, to be held in Columbus, on the issue.

Many plans are in danger of insolvency, with an estimated 1.3 million retired union workers who could lose their pensions in the near future. More than 60,000 of those workers are from Ohio.

Bill Saunders, of Belmont County in eastern Ohio, is a retired coal miner. He says he worked 53 years, knowing that he’d receive his pension down the line.

“To fight for something all your life, work your life, then have someone else come in and say, ‘No, you didn’t earn that something else …’ No, that’s not the way it works,” he said.

Mike Kelley, a coal miner from Dillonvale, near Steubenville, also attended the rally. While he’s not receiving a pension, Kelley is concerned about his fellow workers who rely on that money.

Brown's legislation, the Butch Lewis Act, has been denounced by his Republican Senate race opponent Jim Renacci.
Credit KAREN KASLER / STATEHOUSE NEWS BUREAU

“To worry month by month, not knowing if it’s going to be there, I don’t think that’s right," Kelley said. "After you work your life and retire, you should be able to relax and know that that pension check is going to be there.” 

More than a labor issue
Dem. U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown has raised concerns about this issue for years. Brown, a co-chair of the committee meeting in Columbus, said this is vital for unions but insists this is more than just a labor issue.

“My obligation is also to protect these businesses whose financial viability is in jeopardy, if we don’t fix this, and ultimately the pension system which undergirds tens of millions of workers is threatened,” he said.

The pensions are in danger for several reasons: the latest national recession in 2009, a high volume of retirees, and corporate bankruptcies to name a few. The fear is that the collapse of those vulnerable pension plans can create a wave of insolvencies even for the plans that are doing OK. And that can mean millions more could lose their pensions as well.

Brown has introduced the Butch Lewis Act, named in memory of a Cincinnati labor leader. It creates low-interest, 30-year loans to help support the pensions. But Brown says he’s open to negotiating with anyone on the issue, adding that he’s had productive conversations with Rep. U.S. Sen. Rob Portman.

Portman is also on the committee, making Ohio the only state with two lawmakers on the panel. Portman says he also believes there’s a way to bring both sides together.

Portman is calling for compromise to solve the problem.
Credit SCREEN CAPTURE

“I think we can do it. We’ve got to put politics aside to do so," he said. "It’s going to be one of those, I hope, rare occurrences in Washington where we recognize the crisis and shove the politics aside, seize the opportunity and find a workable solution that all parties can rally around.” 

For Saunders and his fellow union workers, they say lawmakers need to act soon. Brown’s bill has been stalled in the Senate for a while, but some conservatives, including Brown’s Republican opponent this fall, Congressman Jim Renacci, have opposed the idea, calling it a bailout using taxpayer money.

Saunders fired back at that argument.

“If we reversed this and put the politicians in the same position we’re in, what would they do? It would’ve been repaired already,” Saunders said.

The special Congressional committee must complete its work by the end of November. They hope to vote on a plan by that time. A bill can only pass out of that committee with at least 10 votes, five must be Republican votes and five must be Democratic votes. If they do pass something, then that bill is guaranteed a trip straight to the Senate and House floor for a vote.