2015 Nov.-Dec. -- President's Perspective: Let's vow to stand strong for Railroad Retirement -- we have earned it

Published: Mar 31 2016 11:24AM

Let's vow to stand strong for Railroad Retirement -- we have earned it

One of the most common questions of a middle-class American worker is rooted in a sense of worry. "When it comes time to retire, will money be there for me?"

 For BMWED workers, thanks to our federal Railroad Retirement program, the current answer is "yes." But for far too many other American workers, the shameful fact is, they may never reach a comfortable retirement. This should be an embarrassment to our country, our elected leaders, our leading businesses and their respective CEOs. However, a sound retirement for American workers has increasingly been dismissed. I'm sad to say, but when it comes to an honest and fair retirement, our country has lost its soul.

Our Railroad Retirement trust fund is in good shape currently. Recent reports from the Railroad Retirement Board show it with a balance of about $27 billion. The RRB's chief actuary is required to submit a report to Congress and the President every year, where he projects out the pension program over the next 75 years. The latest report does not anticipate any future cash flow problems. But that's our defined pension plan. Other workers' pensions, as you may already know if you're a close follower of the news, are not doing nearly as well. Sadly, in fact, many are nearing complete failure -- due to no fault of the workers who paid into them for the entirety of their careers.

The phrase "too big to fail" means one thing for banks, and another thing for American working class union members, who paid into defined benefit pension funds their entire careers, counting on it to provide their retirement. Turns out, when banks are on the edge of complete collapse, Congress and American taxpayers bail them out. But when those same American, working class taxpayers unexpectedly learn that their defined benefit pension fund won't be there when they need it, Congress changes law to let their former companies complete the shafting.

"Too big to fail." "Too powerless to care." What a travesty.

As Kansas City Star newspaper columnist May Sanchez points out in a recent editorial, it was once illegal to cut promised pension benefits. But at the end of 2014, Congress voted to change that -- for some. It did so with no formal debate and no hearings. The legislation -- the Multiemployer Pension Reform Act -- was attached to a must-pass omnibus spending bill. It was signed into law by the President in order to prevent the government from shutting down. You probably remember that fiasco.

As Sanchez reports, the law permits multi-employer pension plans -- run jointly by unions and employers -- to apply to the Treasury Department to reduce benefits. Union members who participate in the pension plans will have a chance to vote on the cuts, but -- thanks to the newly-passed law -- the Treasury Department can override the outcome of that vote. Given the provisions and the Big Business-friendly climate on Capitol Hill, it is a foregone conclusion that it will do so. 

There are many factors that have led to the solvency issues of defined benefit pensions. In general, deregulation, demographics, and de-unionization are the main factors for the decline of many multi-employer pensions. Over the decades, union membership has tragically declined and retirees have lived longer, and employers have failed to backfill the positions, all adding to the pension's burdens. Without enough current workers paying in, the pensioners are left in the cold.

When the banks were on the verge of collapse, our elected leaders stepped in and saved them with tax dollars. Same too, with the Big Three auto companies. Yet, when hard-working, blue collar, salt-of-the-earth American workers find themselves sailed down the river on the cusp of retirement, Congress turns it back.

It is important to remember that defined pensions are negotiated benefits, successfully attained through collective bargaining. Pensions are compensation, taken by workers in lieu of wages. As Mrs. Sanchez writes in her newspaper story, to take pensions back once they have been earned is theft.

Of particular note here are companion bills introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) and U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (Ohio) called the Keep Our Pension Promises Act. They would prop up vulnerable pension funds through changes in the tax code affecting wealthier people. A quick Google search of the bills leads you to a website called govtrack.us, a legislation-tracking webpage. Govtrack.us gives the chance of the Keep Our Pension Promises Act a zero -- that's a 0 -- percent chance of being enacted under the current House and Senate.

My fellow BMWED Brothers and Sisters, it is imperative that we understand the importance of protecting our Railroad Retirement system. It is up to all of us -- and I truly mean all of us -- to get engaged in the fight to protect our right to retire gracefully and comfortably. We have to understand the sacrifices that were made by previous generations of our membership to keep Railroad Retirement strong, and that the threats on pensions are real and devastating.
Unions all across the world, including our Brotherhood, have a lot of battles before us. But that's OK, because I remain confident that if we stick together in unity, we can beat back the attacks like we traditionally have in the past.

We are organized labor. We are rail labor. Together, we will not fail.