Retirements reduced by the stroke of a pen in D.C.

Rick Karlin
Albany Times Union
February 02, 2015
View the original piece

Anyone who thinks that congressional votes, federal regulations and the machinations of Wall Street have no bearing on their day-to-day lives should talk to John Raffiani Sr.

The Greene County resident is getting a hard lesson in what could be called the downside of deregulation, the decline of unions and the lingering effects of the 2008 recession.

He's one of at least 50 retired Capital Region truck drivers facing a deep cut in their monthly retirement checks due to looming shortfalls in their union pension funds.

The cuts will be allowed thanks to an amendment that was tucked into the most recent federal budget, which was approved by Congress and signed by President Barack Obama in December.

About 100,000 New Yorkers who depend on a variety of private-sector union pensions could be facing lowered payments in coming years.

And while the pension fund that Raffiani relies on, the Teamsters' Central States Pension Fund, is the most prominent and most threatened pension fund right now, the amendment opens the door for potential future cuts to an estimated 10 million retirees nationwide who are enrolled in "multi-employer" pension plans.

Raffiani and others want to know how such a measure was folded into the larger budget rather than debated on its own. "I worked hard for 35 years," said the 68-year-old. "I paid a lot of money over time into that fund."

Raffiani was a Teamster "car hauler," a truck driver who specialized in transporting new cars to dealerships around the Northeast. 

Everyone has seen them — the big rigs with double-decker trailers laden with shiny new vehicles.

In the trucking world, this is an elite group: Drivers not only deliver the valuable cars, but they need to get them on and off their trailers without a scratch. Raffiani and his fellow drivers transported cars from the vast rail yards in Selkirk to dealerships across the region.

He was enrolled in the Teamsters' Central States Pension Fund, which has more than $17 billion in assets. Despite that, a confluence of trends threatens the fund's long-term solvency.

Since the trucking industry was deregulated in 1980, there have been fewer big companies paying into the plan, and even fewer union drivers contributing to the fund. Add in the lingering hit from the 2008 financial crash and the plan, which now pays $4 in retirement funds for every dollar it's collecting, is facing long-term peril.

As a result, the fund's managers sought and got permission from Congress to make the cuts if needed.

Raffiani says his approximately $3,000 monthly pension could be cut almost in half.

It should be a while before that occurs, according to the union, but most expect it to happen by 2016.

Raffiani got into the car hauling business almost by chance, and he stuck with it as he gained experience and seniority.

He began driving concrete trucks after high school, but that was seasonal. When he got the chance to haul cars, he jumped.

In his best years, Raffiani earned more than $50,000 with benefits. Some drivers made twice that if they were willing to drive all the time and spend weeks away from home.

It was never easy, though. As well as driving for 10 hours at a stretch, car haulers have to load the new vehicles on their trailers, then chain them securely in place. It can take a few minutes or few hours, said Raffiani, depending on the vehicles. The job also requires clambering around a double-decker trailer in all kinds of weather, day and night, using heavy steel rods or tie-down bars to secure the chains holding the cars.

"The bars do a number on you," Raffiani said, adding that all the fellow car haulers he knows have chronic shoulder problems. "That bar could slip and knock out your teeth."

He remembers the time another hauler lost four fingers when a rod slipped in a particularly bad way. 

Another driver died after he was pinned between two cars he was unloading in Newburgh. A Canadian hauler slipped off his trailer one frigid night near the border and landed on his head.

Raffiani considers himself lucky: He got out with the usual shoulder pain and only three hernia operations.

He traveled mostly in New York and New England, although some trips took him as far as Montana and Oklahoma.

Shortly after he started in the business, he noticed an odd phenomenon to which he didn't give much thought at the time.

The companies that had contracts to haul cars seemed to be endlessly changing, especially after deregulation. 

They were being taken private or public. Or going bankrupt and reorganizing under different names or owners.

Raffiani has a hard time keeping all his employers straight — many don't exist any more, or have gone through numerous iterations.

He started his career with Anchor Motor Freight and then went to Leaseway. Then it was NuCar. After that he was at M&G Convoy, Automobile Transport and Ryder, and so on.

Some of the firms didn't seem well-managed. He recalls one that got a contract with an unusually low bid — it turned out the Georgia-based owners didn't realize there are road tolls in New York and New England. "Right away, they were in serious trouble," he said.

In retrospect, the game of musical trucks resulted from deregulation. Prior to the 1980s, car hauling was governed by strict federal rules about where trucks could or couldn't go. That limited the competition. Deregulation, especially the Motor Carrier Act of 1980, meant more and more people could enter the business. That may have helped lower shipping costs, but with an ever-expanding list of companies, the pay for the drivers fell and union shops became less competitive.

"Pretty much anybody could haul what they wanted when they wanted to,'' said Raffiani.

For pension funds like the Central States, which has 411,000 members, one result was that fewer and fewer drivers are paying into the plan. Currently, Central States has just one active employee for every five retirees.

Raffiani isn't sure how many fellow retirees know about the looming cuts. He's been trying to get the word out and has spoken with groups like Teamsters for a Democratic Union, which has criticized the union's leadership on this issue.

The Washington, D.C.-based Pension Rights Center is keeping track of the possible cuts and they are pushing the union to keep searching for alternatives.

AARP has sounded the alarm as well, saying they are worried about the precedent it could set.

Some criticize the way the amendment, which was pushed through by Republican Rep. John Kline of Minnesota and Democrat George Miller of California, was inserted into the larger budget bill. They say that had it been a stand-alone measure, there would have at least been more debate.

"Because it was attached to what many viewed as 'must-pass' legislation, many believe there was no choice," said Joellen Leavelle, outreach manager for the Pension Rights Center.

"Whether or not they even knew what they were voting for is another story," Raffiani said of the lawmakers who voted for the overall budget package.

In the aftermath, Raffiani is considering his options. He has renewed his hazardous materials license, which would allow him to drive a fuel truck — at his age, he doesn't want to climb around on car hauler trailers. He drives a school bus part time and refurbishes vacuum cleaners on the side, and thinks about ramping up that business.

He's also looking at opening a small cafe with his wife, who he says is a top-notch cook.

Raffiani has two children in the area, including a son who joined the Air Force years ago. He's already retired with a secure government pension in Georgia, where heating costs and taxes are fraction of what Raffiani pays.

"I've been sick ever since this happened," Raffiani said.

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