How Grassroots Organizing Saved Our Pensions

When TDU launched the pension movement in 2013, preventing pension cuts seemed almost impossible. But rank-and-file organizing by thousands of workers and retirees have made it a reality. This week, the Butch Lewis Emergency Pension Relief Act will be signed into law, a victory that will protect the pensions of 400,000 Teamsters and 2.5 million workers. How did this happen and what can we win from this rank-and-file victory?

From Crisis to Victory

In 2013, the future looked bleak for 400,000 Teamsters and their families covered by the Central States Pension Fund.

Employers, the pension fund, and even the Teamsters International leadership all backed a plan to cut pensions that Teamsters had worked for their whole lives.

Teamsters and retirees turned to the one resource they had: each other. At the TDU Convention in 2013, they launched a grassroots movement to save their pensions.

Now rank-and-file retirees have done the impossible and passed a law named after Teamster and TDU leader Butch Lewis, one of the many heroes of the pension movement. 

Their strategy and victory are lessons in grassroots organizing, persistence, and rank-and-file power.

The Crisis

In 2007, Teamster President James Hoffa inked a deal with UPS to let the company pull out of the Central States Pension Fund. This came after years of deregulation and union-busting by employers. Without enough working participants bringing in employer contributions, the Central States Fund was headed downward and dependent on investment returns.

When the financial crisis rocked Wall Street in 2008, the Central States Pension Fund, which had 64% of its assets in stocks, lost over $11 billion. With no more pension contributions coming in from UPS, its largest employer, the Fund had no hope of recovering.

Having condemned Central States to a death spiral, Hoffa teamed up with Teamster employers to “fix” the crisis by cutting pension benefits. 



Congress Guts Pension Protections

Under ERISA, it was illegal for pension funds like Central States to cut workers’ pensions. So Hoffa joined employers on the board of a coalition, the National Coordinating Committee for Multiemployer Plans (NCCMP), that lobbied to gut ERISA protections by allowing pension cuts. 

They called their program, “Solutions, Not Bailouts.”

TDU sounded the alarm and worked to inform members and retirees of the threat. At local union meetings, and retiree meetings, IBT officials told Teamsters who expressed concerns about potential cuts that their pensions were protected, and that TDU was lying about the danger. 

As early as April 2013, at a Kansas City Local 41 meeting, TDU retiree activist Wes Epperson pressed Al Nelson, a Central States Fund executive, to admit to the 1,500 active and retired Teamsters present that Central States was part of the NCCMP “Solutions, Not Bailouts” effort to slash pensions. Nelson dodged the issue.



Workers and Retirees Fight Back

Throughout 2014, TDU organized meetings to inform and unite retired and active Teamsters to protect their pensions. 

“From the very beginning, TDU informed us of the plan to destroy our earned promised pensions. It wasn’t our union leadership that did that,” said Mike Walden, President of the national United Committees to Protect Pensions. “With the warning from TDU, we organized a grassroots movement to fight every obstacle in our way.”

With meetings in Northeast Ohio, Minnesota and other areas, TDU prepared Teamsters to oppose  legislation to promote pension cuts. TDU worked with the Washington D.C. based  Pension Rights Center to spread information about the pending legislation. 

“TDU held the first pension meeting in Richfield, Ohio, in March 2014, when the Northeast Ohio Pension Committee started,” said Local 728 retiree Jimi Richards. “From there, we started calling and mobilizing Teamsters retirees from around the U.S. that were in the Central States Pension Fund, via phone calls, email, and social media.” 

Hoffa’s Political Pivot

As the movement grew, informed Teamster retirees and members demanded that the Hoffa administration fight the threatened cuts. 

Right before the critical vote, Hoffa made a show of siding with the members. Days prior to the Congressional vote on the pension cut bill designed by his “Solutions, Not Bailouts” coalition, Hoffa resigned from the Board of the NCCMP, and sent a letter to Congress opposing MPRA.

Hoffa’s opposition was calculated and empty. An email from the Central State Pension Fund Director Thomas Nyhan (obtained under the Freedom Of Information Act) revealed the deal: “Hoffa’s minions are preparing a letter to the Hill...I do not believe they are dispatching any troops but simply writing a letter they will post on their website to offset some of the TDU noise.”

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New Law (MPRA) Guts Pension Protections

Over the valiant opposition of grassroots activists. Congress passed the Multiemployer Pension Reform Act (MPRA) in December 2014 as part of the budget reconciliation process that went on in the wee hours of the night. 

The new law made it legal to cut workers’ earned pensions. MPRA established procedures for pension funds in troubled or declining status to submit proposals for cuts. The U.S. Treasury Department had the power to approve or deny any plans. 

Once MPRA passed and Central States sent out notice of pending cuts, the movement took off. Grassroots organizing meetings were held throughout the Midwest and South—Milwaukee, the Twin Cities, Kansas City, Columbus, Cincinnati, Detroit, Charlotte, Atlanta, Memphis and so many more. Teamsters got fired up about losing their hard earned pensions. 

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Central States Fund Proposes Big Cuts

By September 2015, Central States proposed to cut the pensions of 400,000 Teamsters by as much as 60%. They submitted their plan for cuts to the Treasury Department for review. 

The movement found a tool to fight back. The law required the Treasury Department to name a special counsel who was charged with conducting meetings with pension participants. It also gave participants the right to vote on any proposed cuts, though Treasury could ultimately overrule any vote. 

Ken Feinberg was named the Special Counsel. He held fact-finding meetings in late 2015 and early 2016. Treasury also set up a website and received thousands of submitted statements from affected participants. 

Feinberg heard directly from Teamsters at mass meetings in Indianapolis, Columbus, Detroit, Minneapolis and Kansas City. He saw firsthand the opposition to the cuts and heard statement after statement as to the duress cuts would cause. 



Central States Pension Cut Plan Defeated

The pension movement grew. Local 89, led by Fred Zuckeman, joined the pension fight, as did other locals. The Pension Rights Center enlisted the support of the AARP to our cause.

In April 2016, 2,000 activists from 20 states converged on Washington, D.C. to rally at the Capitol. Twenty Senators and Congressional Reps lined up to declare their support.

In May 2016, the Treasury Dept rejected the Central States plan. Thomas Nyhan, Executive Director of Central States said the Fund would make pension payments until bankruptcy, an inevitable outcome unless Congress took action. 

The rejection was the movement’s first major victory but it only bought time. The pension crisis was far from over. In fact the pension crisis was growing. 

Many other union funds, including Teamster funds such as the Upstate New York Fund, the Western Pennsylvania Fund, and the New York Local 707 Fund submitted plans for pension cuts. 

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The National United Committee to Protect Pensions

The crisis was growing, but so was the grassroots movement. The pension movement grew up, got its legs and mobilized.  

The National United Committee to Protect Pensions (NUCPP) was the main coordinating organization of the Teamster pension movement. Mike Walden, a retiree out of Akron Local 24, became President, working alongside many other pension movement leaders.

The NUCCP, with the help of the Pension Rights Center, organized dozens of lobbying visits to Capitol Hill. Teams of retired and active Teamsters traveled to Washington on a regular basis to press for new legislation that would ultimately protect every earned pension.

As the fight to protect pensions grew and attained credibility with Congress, the Hoffa administration decided to support the movement. Facing a tough election challenge from Fred Zuckerman and Teamsters United in 2016, the Hoffa administration put resources behind the pension movement. 

TDU and the pension movement welcomed this support, focusing on the issue, not politics or personalities. Pension movement activists worked with the Hoffa administration to support legislation to save Teamster pensions.

Senator Bernie Sanders introduced the Keep Our Pension Promises Act (KOPPA) in May 2017, and the grassroots movement and the IBT rallied behind it. 

In 2018, a similar bill introduced by Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, the Butch Lewis Act, became the focal point of the movement. 

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Who Was Butch Lewis?

Butch was a freight driver and officer of Cincinnati Local 100, and a member of the TDU International Steering Committee. After he retired, he joined the pension movement and remained active until the day he died in 2015. 

His wife, Rita Lewis, became a spokesperson for the pension movement. 

Anti-labor politicians repeatedly blocked the Butch Lewis Act—and they continued their opposition to the end.  

But the movement persisted—this was a marathon fight. Following the 2020 elections, the finish line came into view, and the pension movement, the IBT and our allies pressed on. 

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Victory and Its Lessons

On February 26, 2021, the Butch Lewis Emergency Pension Reform Act passed the House of Representatives.

Early on March 6, an amendment to kill the Butch Lewis Act from the COVID-19 Relief Bill was defeated by a vote of 50-49 in the US Senate. The last hurdle was passed. Later that day, it passed the Senate by the same 50-49 vote, as part of the budget reconciliation bill.

President Biden will sign the bill within days, and put the Butch Lewis Act into federal law.

The pensions of millions of workers were saved by working Teamsters who built rank-and-file power by organizing at the grassroots. 

Teamster didn’t wait for Hoffa, union officials, or politicians. They took action and became the leaders they were looking for until top union and political leaders followed.  

That’s a blueprint for winning more victories for Teamsters and all workers.

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