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To Save Their Pensions, Unions Prepare Rally At Ohio Statehouse

Phil Smith of the United Mine Workers.
Nick Evans
Phil Smith of the United Mine Workers.

Amid a congressional committee meeting in Columbus, union workers and retirees will rally at the Ohio Statehouse in an effort to push Congress to protect their pensions. Many worry a string of bankruptcies has put their retirements at risk.

The workers paid into what are known as "multi-employer" pension plans—retirement funds that pool dollars to reduce overall risk. But Phil Smith from the United Mine Workers Association says between the Great Recession and broader changes in the energy industry, some of those funds are now on the brink of collapse.

“We’re in a position where none of our members caused this problem,” Smith says. “It was caused by the collapse on Wall Street. Congress bailed out the banks on Wall Street, all we’re asking is that Congress give us a loan so we can make sure our pensions get paid and we’ll pay it back.”

Smith explains the United Mine Workers fund would need a loan of about $1.5 billion, but the figures could be steeper for other plans.

"Some of these other funds are a lot bigger than ours so they would need a different amount of money,” Smith explains. “I really can't speak for them, but I do know that there are, where we have about 100,000 people, the Teamsters Central State Plan has about 400,000 people."

A congressional joint select committee, of which both Sen. Sherrod Brown and Sen. Rob Portman are members, meets in Columbus on Friday. The bipartisan panel has until the end of November to come up with a plan.

Brown, a Democrat, co-chairs the committee and largely echoes the rhetoric of union workers.

“What Washington doesn’t always understand is these folks sat at the negotiating table, they gave up wages over the last several decades today so that they’d have retirement security in the future," Brown told reporters Wednesday. "That’s what collective bargaining is, that’s what some of my colleagues need to be taught.”

On a conference call with reporters on Tuesday, Portman stressed a middle path.

“On the other side of the aisle, you have some members who want the federal government to fully fund and bail out these pension plans," the Republican said. "My goal is to try to bring both sides together and bridge that gap.”

The 16-member committee is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans.  If at least five members from each party sign off on the panel’s recommendation, it will be fast tracked for an up or down vote in Congress.