On Aug. 25 a delegation of Teamster members traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with congressional aides about pending pension legislation. The delegation included Tommy Burke, Kevin Wright, Frank Bryant (all from Local 391, North Carolina), Randy Brown, President of Local 728, Atlanta and Sandy Pope, President of New York Local 805. They met with aides from Senators Kennedy, Clinton, Enzi and Burr—all of whom are on the Senate committee which introduced the legislation in the Senate.
July 27, 2005: The Union Trustees on the New England Teamsters Pension Fund have agreed to new pension restrictions—including eliminating 25-and-out and 30-and-out pensions before age 57.
The cuts are coming just as news of the fund’s strong financial performance is hitting members’ homes. The Fund just mailed its summary annual report to members this week, in which it reported that Fund assets grew by more than $121.5 million in the last fiscal year.
Members who do not have 25 years of credit by July 31, 2005, will not be eligible for 25- or 30-and-out until age 57. Members who do have 25 years of credited service, but are under age 57, are protected and can get their earned pension. But if they continue to work they will have their pension frozen until that age. So a Teamster who is 53 and 27 years credit, with a pension accrued of $2,300 per month, could work the next four years with zero pension improvement. Then, at 57, the pension will snap back to the full rate.
Pension accrual rates are also frozen. New contracts will have to increase pension contributions by 5% per year to maintain the present rate of accrual.
But the biggest cuts are in early retirement: the Trustees’ July 13 announcement states that the goal is to keep Teamsters working longer.
While most Teamsters don’t retire before 57 and will be hurt very little, many do retire early. Many are forced to because of company closures (including the Red Star victims) or health factors. These Teamsters are going to take the brunt of the cuts imposed.
Worst hit of all are those who fall short of 25 years. A Teamster with 24 years credit, at age 49, will not become eligible for any Special Service (25- or 30-year) pension for eight years, until age 57.
An announcement is expected to reach New England Teamsters any day with the details of the cuts.
The changes were announced on July 15, just two weeks after the fund announced that its assets grew for the second straight year. In all, the fund’s assets have grown by more than $429 million in the last two years.
The pension cuts come despite James Hoffa’s promises after he negotiated the “Best Contract Ever” at UPS—as well as after freight and carhaul negotiations—that members’ pension benefits would be secure for the life of these agreements.
New England pension accrual rates are frozen. New contracts will have to increase pension contributions by 5 percent per year to maintain the present rate of accrual.
The biggest cuts are in early retirement. If you do not have enough years of credit by July 31, 2005, you will not be eligible for 25- or 30-and-out until age 57. Members who do have 25 or 30 years of credited service, but are under age 57, are protected from the cuts by federal law and can get their earned pension.
UPS and other employers wanted the fund to make even more drastic cuts to members’ benefits, but union trustees refused.
No Grandfathering Protections
Unlike in the past, the changes did not include grandfathering provisions to protect Teamsters who are close to making their 25 or 30 years and were planning to retire soon. Members were given just two weeks notice of the changes.
TDU has received numerous reports of members’ retirement plans being thrown into chaos by the changes.
“I had planned to retire in November 2005 once I made my 30 ‘good years’ after 36 years as a Teamster,” said Dan Faust, a ready-mix driver from Local 42 in Lynn, Mass.
“Now my retirement has been put off for two more years until I turn 57. What really shocked me is they did not grandfather us in as they’ve done in the past. It’s wrong and cold.”
There’s an additional catch that punishes Teamsters with 25 years who continue working. Beginning July 31, these Teamsters will have their pension frozen until they reach age 57. So a Teamster who is 53 with 27 years credit, with an accrued pension of $2,300 per month, could work the next four years with zero pension improvement. Then, at 57, the pension would snap back to the full rate. But a member who has to retire before 57 because of injury or the closure of their company would work extra time for no additional benefit.
Making Members Work Longer
The fund notice said openly that the goal was to get members to work longer.
“I’ve had some of the union trustees on the fund tell me you really shouldn’t be looking to retire that early,” said Jack Reardon, a UPS feeder driver and vice president of Local 170 in Worcester, Mass. “That’s what I expect to hear from the company. You try driving for 25 or 30 years and then be told you need to spend several more years behind the wheel. It’s not right.
“We used to say, ‘When I hit 30 years, you can retire me but you can’t fire me.’ Well that’s out the door,” Reardon said. “I’ll have to work 36 years to be 57. Members are asking, ‘What did we do to deserve this?’ ”
While most Teamsters don’t retire before age 57 and will be hurt very little, many do retire early. Others are forced to because of company closures (including the Red Star victims) or health factors. These Teamsters are going to take the brunt of the imposed cuts.
Other Teamsters hit by the cuts are members who sacrificed wage increases in recent contract negotiations in order to get pension contributions high enough to maintain eligibility for special service pensions—for which they won’t qualify under the new rules.
That’s just what happened to approximately 900 bakery drivers covered by a recently negotiated regional agreement with Interstate Bakeries Corporation. These members took a two-year freeze in their commission rate in order to stay eligible for 25- and 30-and-out pensions.
That contract promise has been broken. But these Teamster drivers are not getting back their commission increases.
The misnamed “Pension Protection Act” contains a dangerous provision that would allow troubled pension plans to cut benefits that members have already accrued—and even cut the benefits of Teamsters who have already retired for less than one year. Under current laws, these cuts are illegal. Only future pension accruals can be cut.
Not surprisingly, UPS management lobbied heavily for the bill’s passage (HR 2830). But the bill was also supported by the trustees on the Teamsters Central States Pension Plan. And James Hoffa himself hailed the bill as a “great first step.”
All 29 Republicans on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce supported the bill, introduced by Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), and all 22 Democrats refused to vote on the measure. The bill will be considered in other committees and by the Senate
Teamsters, take warning: this bill is dangerous. UPS management supports this bill because they want the Teamster Central States Pension Fund, and possibly other Teamsters funds, to be able to cut already-earned benefits.
If passed into law, the bill would reduce pension security for Teamster members—and all working families. That’s why the Pension Rights Center, the organization in Washington that protects and promotes the pension rights of American workers and retirees, opposes changes that allow cuts in earned pension credits.
Your Pension in Danger
The proposed bill would make it easier for a troubled multi-employer pension plan to go into “reorganization” status. Once a plan is in “reorganization” the trustees would be free to drastically cut benefits, even benefits already accrued.
If this happens, a Teamster with 30 credit years in Central States could possibly be told, “Sorry, your 30-and-out credits won’t work. You have work until you are 62 to get it.” Disability pensions could be cut, 25-and-out and 30-and-out benefits could be cut for working Teamsters and for those who are retired less than one year.
Only retirement benefits at “normal retirement age” would be legally protected. This is age 62 or 65 for most pension funds.
Employers, Hoffa Want More Power to Cut Your Pension
Under present law, these cuts are illegal.
UPS management wants that changed. So does the Hoffa administration. In a letter to all local leaders in February, IBT leaders complained that “Trustees are limited by ERISA and can only affect [cut] future accruals.” ERISA is the federal pension law that makes it illegal for pension plans to cut benefits that employees have already accrued.
Hoffa, sold his “Best Contract Ever” at UPS as well as the freight and carhaul agreements on the promise that our benefits would be protected. Now he is using your dues money to lobby Congress so Teamster plans can cut benefits that members have already earned! Hoffa’s own lucrative pension plan is unaffected by this proposal.
Why would the Hoffa administration do this? Because Hoffa and other top Teamster officials are intimidated by UPS management. UPS has told them either the company get pension cuts or they will try to pull out of the Teamster pension plans in the next contract.
Time to Fight Back, Not Give Up
Instead of caving in to the company’s threats three years before the next negotiations, our union leadership should be leading members in a fightback to protect our benefits. We should be lobbying Congress for pension reform that protects Teamster retirement security—not undermines it.
The IBT should be educating members about the threat that a UPS pullout would pose both to all Teamsters’ retirement security. Instead, the IBT has let UPS’s rumors and attacks on our pensions go unanswered.
Finally, the IBT should be mobilizing members to fight for adequate funding of our pension plans in the coming contracts. It may require some sacrifice such as reduced wage gains, but we can negotiate these increases.
In fact, on August 1 another sixty cents per hour will go into the Central States Pension Plan for UPS, freight, carhaul and certain other Teamsters. That increase alone will put nearly $100 million a year in new money into Central States. More of that can be done in the next contract.
What You Can Do
This is time for Teamsters to speak out. Write your Congressional reps and Senators. Urge them to oppose any pension bill that allows for cutbacks in earned benefits. Ask your union officers to do the same.
We also urge Teamster members to contact James Hoffa and tell him to use our dues money to fight to protect our benefits—not to lobby for legislation that will make it legal to cut pension benefits we have already earned.
Click here for a downloadable TDU Pension Cut update to distribute to fellow Teamsters
Central States Teamsters click here for a flyer from the Central States Pension Improvement Committee
June 6, 2005:It's no secret that United Parcel Service wants to pull all their employees out of Teamster pension funds. Like any corporation, they'd rather have unilateral control over their employees' pensions and convert them to 401(k) plans.
UPS took a step forward on that plan in May with the acquisition of Overnite. Now they have 10,000 less-than-truckload freight workers who are not in any Teamster plan, and they plan to grow that number as fast as they can.
Already outside our pension funds are at least half of UPS Teamster part timers. We can’t let this balance reach a tipping point: we need to bring Overnite workers into our funds now, and the rest of the part timers in 2008.
That’s why we have to organize UPS-Overnite, into our union and into our Teamster pension funds. Doing that would:
- Bring 10,000 new Teamster participants into our pension funds;
- Greatly improve pensions for Overnite workers and their families;
- Provide strong protection against a UPS pull-out from the funds; and
- Strengthen our funds by improving the ratio of active Teamsters to retirees.
UPS management is not to going to volunteer to pay better pensions to UPS-Overnite workers. Certainly they’re not going to be eager to strengthen our Teamster funds when management’s plan is to bust out of those funds.
UPS management has a three-point plan to undermine Teamster retirement security. Part one is a legislative attack. Part two is a campaign to soften up Teamsters with false promises of wonderful pensions from the company. Part three is taking advantage of the IBT failed leadership on pension issues.
The IBT needs a plan, too. A campaign to organize Overnite and bring those members into the Teamster benefit funds is a good place to start.
If UPS Ran Your Pension, You Would Lose $1,000 a Month!
$2,394 per month after 30 years of full time service: That is what UPS management would pay you for a pension, according to calculations performed by TDU. The calculation was based on UPS Senior Vice President John McDevitt’s testimony last year to Congress.
That’s about $1,000 per month less than Teamster plans provide.
What this means: If the same amount that UPS contributed into the Teamster pension plans since 1974 had gone into a 401(k) plan instead, and earned 7.5% a year, you would have an inferior pension today.
We calculated this figure by using the amount UPS paid into the pension fund each year since 1974 for a full timer who worked every day.
We used McDevitt’s own figure of 7.5% annual rate of return and UPS’ conversion formula from a lump sum to a monthly pension.
The calculations can be provided by TDU to interested members.
Of course spun information is better than none at all. Thanks to member pressure over the last two years, the fund is finally releasing more information to members. Its important for Teamsters to keep informed and learn more about what’s going on with our pension and health and welfare contributions.
Click Here to See the Letter for Yourself
The new is not all good. The restrictions on 25-and-out and 30-and-out pensions before age 57 remain in place. New England Teamsters who did not have enough years of credit by July 31, 2005 will not be eligible for 25- or 30-and-out until age 57. Unlike in the past, the changes did not include grandfathering provisions to protect Teamsters who were close to making their 25 or 30 years and were planning to retire soon. Members are calling for the fund trustees to grandfather existing negotiated promises. Teamsters who were close to qualifying under the old rules should have their contracts honored.
Change #1: No Punishment for Continuing to Work
Under the original changes, Teamsters with 25 years who continued working after July 31 would have their pension frozen until they reach age 57. Then, at 57, the pension would snap back to the full rate. A member who had to retire before 57 because of injury or the closure of their company would get no additional benefit for their extra time worked.
The Trustees have now eliminated this “Snap Back” provision. If, and only if, you had 25 years on July 31 and were eligible for a special service benefit, then you will continue to earn the additional $150 per year and be eligible to retire at any age.
Change #2: Honoring Promises in Existing Contracts
Under the original cuts, Teamsters would have suffered a reduction in their pension accrual if they were covered by contracts that did not include annual increases in their pension contributions of 5 percent. This would have meant pension cuts for many New England Teamsters covered under multi-year contracts that were negotiated before the pension rules were changed.
The Pension Fund Trustees have backed off of this unreasonable rule. Now, the Pension Fund will honor all existing contracts by maintaining the accrual rate. When these contracts expire, the new contracts must include increased pension contributions of 5 percent a year to maintain the accrual rate.
Pension Reform, Accountability Needed
Both of the reforms to the original cuts address problems that were first reported by TDU. It remains to be seen whether membership pressure can convince the Trustees to introduce stronger grandfathering provisions that will protect Teamsters who were planning to retire under the old rules.
Teamster members and officers won these improvements by putting pressure on the Pension Fund Trustees. This is an example of how our union trustees on the pension fund are indirectly accountable if we apply enough heat. What is really needed is direct accountability.
The New England pension cuts show the need for us to elect delegates to the 2006 Teamster Convention who will back reforms to the Teamster Constitution to hold benefit fund trustees directly accountable to Teamster members–and to support candidates for International office who will defend our pensions from attacks by the employers and corporate politicians.
February 17, 2005: Boston Local 25 President Ritchie Reardon told Joint Council 10 that the IBT Parcel Division approved a mid-contract giveback to UPS that violates language in the New England supplement. Reardon’s statement was part of his testimony in a hearing on internal union charges over the concession. The testimony marks the first time that anyone has put on the record that the IBT approved the contract concession. Reardon said the approval was not issued in writing.
Sunday to Thursday Without Premium Pay
Local 25 negotiated a side agreement with UPS management, after the company threatened to move some jobs, that allowed the company to establish a Sunday to Thursday workweek with no premium pay for Sundays. The New England supplement recognizes only a Monday to Friday or a Tuesday to Saturday workweek. The UPS contract requires that all mid-contract agreements be approved by the Joint National Negotiating Committee.
The giveback quickly spread to locals 42, 191, 340 and 671.
Other local unions voted the giveback down or refused to hold a vote—even though UPS threatened some locals that they would lose work if they did so.
Members have argued that the change to the regional supplement should have been put to a regional vote—rather than allowing UPS to pit local against local for the best deal.
The impact of this giveback continues to be felt. Recently UPS management at the Worcester hub posted a notice stating that the a.m. sort would be shut down and that the volume would be “moved to other hubs.” Worcester Local 170 was one of the locals that resisted the side agreement.
If the IBT and all New England locals had stayed united it would be impossible for management to pit members against each other in this manner.
A lawsuit filed by members to reverse the concession was dismissed on a technicality Jan. 13. The judge hearing the case ruled that the suit needed to be filed within six months of the change at Local 25, rather than within six months of the date that Local 25 refused to process members’ grievance against the change.
According to Local 25 member David Whitney, the New England Supplement Protection Committee will continue pursuing the issue through charges that are under investigation at the National Labor Relations Board. Also, internal union charges have been filed against officials of all the local unions that made the change without a proper vote of the members
January 28, 2005: On December 9 Judge James B Moran directed the trustees of the Teamster Central States Pension Fund to turn more documents over to participants in the fund. The decision expands an October 21 victory won by Teamster members in Locals 638, 391 and 20.
Central States has now been ordered to reveal quarterly reports, along with financial and actuarial supplementary attachments, from August of 2000 up till the present, and into the future. The information will help members see just what should have been done, and what can be done now, and who is responsible for the drastic cuts the trustees imposed on members and retirees.
“It’s a great victory. Hopefully when we get these documents we can get an expert evaluation of the situation,” commented Tommy Burke, a UPS driver in Local 391 who is one of the intervenors in court. “I want to thank our attorney, Paul Levy, for his good work.”
The trustees are apparently considering whether to appeal, to try to continue to hide from the Teamster membership.
Teamster Website False
The Teamster website, in a “Central States Update” contains false information on the situation. First, it states the court only ordered that two reports be revealed. The truth is that the court ordered that many reports be turned over, along with additional separate financial attachments. Central States is stalling on many of them. Second, the International claims that Public Citizen Litigation Group took the action; in truth, Public Citizen represents Teamster members who are long time fund participants. Third, the International says the reports contain “little new information.” This statement is interesting, and was immediately reported to Judge Moran by the members’ attorney, because in court the International’s trustees claim the exact opposite: that vital secret information will be revealed. The same false statements are posted on the Central States site.
TDU, the Central States Pension Improvement Committee and concerned members and local officers will continue the fight for pension justice. This is one more victory in a long march toward that goal.
Yet for nearly half a million union members who are expecting the fund to pay for their retirement, those may have been the good old days.
Since 1982, under a consent decree with the federal government, the fund has been run by prominent Wall Street firms and monitored by a federal court and the Labor Department. There have been no more shadowy investments, no more loans to crime bosses. Yet in these expert hands, the aging fund has fallen into greater financial peril than when James R. Hoffa, who built the Teamsters into a national power, used it as a slush fund.
The unfolding situation holds a hard lesson for others with responsibility for retirement money. What may appear as a sensible, conventional approach to investing - seeking a diversified mix of growth and income investments for the long term - can wreak havoc when applied to a pension fund, especially one in a dying industry with older members who are about to make demands of it.
But the kinds of investments that make sense for such a fund - like long-term bonds that will mature as members enter retirement - are not attractive to most money managers, because they generate few fees. Consequently, very few pension funds use such strategies today.
At the end of 2002, the pension fund had 60 cents for every dollar owed to present and future retirees - a dangerous level. In a rough comparison, the pension fund for US Airways' pilots had 74 cents for every dollar it owed in December 2002, just before it defaulted. During the bear market after the technology bubble burst, Central States' assets lost value as its obligations to retirees ballooned, causing a mismatch so severe that the fund had to reduce benefits last winter for the first time in its 49-year history.
"There never were benefit cuts in the 1970's," said Wayne Seale, 52, a long-haul driver from Houston and one of about 460,000 Teamsters participating in the fund. "We were happy. We were being taken care of."
If the pension fund fails, it will be taken over by a government insurance program. In that case, some Teamsters would lose benefits.
Hoffa and his successors had put an extraordinary 80 percent of Central States' money into real estate. Instead of hotels, casinos and resorts, its new managers - first Morgan Stanley and later Bankers Trust, Goldman Sachs and J. P. Morgan - invested the money mostly in stocks, and to a lesser extent, in bonds. At the end of 2002, about 54 percent of the fund's assets were in stocks, somewhat less than the average corporate pension fund, which had about 74 percent of assets in stocks that year, according to Greenwich Associates, a research and consulting firm.
Federal law calls for fiduciaries to invest pension assets the way a "prudent man" would, and the strategy used for Central States would certainly be familiar to wealthy individuals, philanthropic trusts, university endowments and other pension funds. The fund's investment results in recent years closely track median annual returns for corporate pension funds, according to Mercer Investment Consulting.
The assets lost 4.5 percent of their value in 2001 and 10.9 percent in 2002, but gained 25.5 percent in 2003, according to the fund's executive director and general counsel, Thomas C. Nyhan.
Morgan Stanley and J. P. Morgan declined to comment. Goldman Sachs defended its record, pointing out that it had exceeded its benchmarks in a very tough market.
But the Central States situation shows that using stocks or other volatile assets to secure the obligations of a mature pension fund greatly increases the risk of getting caught short-handed in a down market. If that happens it can be nearly impossible to bring the ailing pension fund back. This is what has happened recently to pension funds at United Airlines and US Airways.
"Stocks are not a hedge against long-term fixed liabilities," said Zvi Bodie, a finance professor at BostonUniversity who has long challenged conventional pension investment strategies. "For many, many years, right down to the present day, the dominant belief among pension investment people is fundamentally wrong. Now that's a big problem."
The record of a second big Teamsters' pension fund, covering members in the West, bolsters Mr. Bodie's arguments. The Western Conference of Teamsters fund has long shunned stocks and uses a totally different investment approach, a portfolio of 20- and 30-year Treasury bonds and other high-grade fixed-income securities that are scheduled to make payments when its retirees will be claiming their money. The Western Conference pension fund was not perceptibly hurt by the bear market.
If the Central States were a younger pension fund, it could wait for the stock market to improve and bolster its value. But it already has more than 200,000 retirees collecting benefits of more than $2 billion a year.
The companies that employ its members currently put in about $1 billion a year. Its trustees, made up of union officials and company representatives in equal numbers, have contemplated raising employer contributions, but the unionized trucking sector has financial problems, and for many companies a higher contribution would be a hardship. The biggest and wealthiest participating company, United Parcel Service, has been trying to leave the pension fund altogether.
The unionized trucking industry was more stable before deregulation in 1979, and so was the Central States pension fund. In the 1970's, the fund's assets grew by as much as 10 percent a year, according to some media reports from that period. Luck played a big part in that success, because the decade was a bad one for stocks and bonds. Thus, the fund made better returns on its unorthodox real estate portfolio than it would have on a conventional mix of investments. The unionized trucking sector was younger, too. And it was growing, so there was more money available from employees and fewer pensions coming due.
Starting in the early 1960's, the fund loaned tens of millions of dollars for investments in Las Vegas casinos, including the Desert Inn, CaesarsPalace, Stardust, Circus Circus, the Landmark Hotel and the Aladdin Hotel, according to a history by Edwin H. Stier, a former federal prosecutor hired by the union as part of its efforts to clean house.
The loans in those days typically involved a front man who signed the papers and a crime family raking off cash behind the scenes. The loan approval process involved kickbacks, threats and, in at least one case, a kidnapping. By the time Hoffa disappeared in 1975, the Central States pension fund had loaned an estimated $600 million to people connected with organized crime, according to Mr. Stier, who resigned his union appointment in April after questioning the union's ongoing commitment to rooting out corruption.
But many of the loans did serve their intended purpose, making money to pay for Teamsters' retirement benefits. The hotels, casinos and other real estate projects, not all of which were connected to organized crime, were generally profitable, according to Mr. Stier, and before his disappearance Hoffa saw to it that his loans were repaid.
By 1977, after years of indictments, prosecutions, Congressional hearings and murders, federal regulators pressured the Central States trustees to resign and turn over the fund's assets to an independent money manager. The 1982 consent decree reduced the trustees' powers permanently, requiring the pension fund to choose an outside fiduciary from America's largest 20 banks, insurance companies and investment advisory firms.
The first to be named fiduciary was Morgan Stanley. Its duties were to pick money managers, to allocate the assets among them and to advise the new board of trustees on investment objectives and strategies.
As it happened, Morgan Stanley got the Central States mandate at a time of explosive growth in the money-management business. A landmark pension reform law had been passed in 1974, requiring all companies to set aside enough money to make good on their pension promises. With assets piling up in trust funds as a result, money managers were competing fiercely for a piece of the business.
Money managers promised pension funds big returns, and to get the big returns they began to add riskier assets to pension portfolios than pension funds had used before. Sleepy bond portfolios were livened up with stocks. Venture capital, junk bonds, securities of companies in developing countries and other exotica began to appear in pension funds.
These investments could be risky, but the industry argued that losses, even big losses, in one year did not matter because a pension fund was a long-term proposition; over time, the losses would be recouped by even bigger gains. Buoyant markets reinforced this thinking in the 1990's, even though by then unionized trucking was in deep decline, and the Central States' ratio of active workers to pensioners was shifting perilously.
Records for the Central States pension fund are not complete, but they indicate that Morgan Stanley kept pace with industry trends, shifting the fund into stocks, particularly international stocks.
By 1997, more than one-third of the pension fund's assets were invested abroad, records show, far more than the norm for such funds. Greenwich Associates surveyed union pension funds in 2003 and found that international equities made up less than 3 percent of their total assets.
A spokesman for Morgan Stanley declined to comment on the Central States investments, citing a policy of not discussing relationships with past clients. He pointed out, however, that international stocks did relatively well in the late 1990's.
Morgan Stanley was replaced as fiduciary by Goldman Sachs and J. P. Morgan in 1999 and 2000. (Bankers Trust served as fiduciary very briefly.) A spokesman for Goldman Sachs noted that his company inherited many of Morgan Stanley's investments and added, "Over the five years we have managed the fund, our performance has exceeded the relevant benchmarks." A spokeswoman for J. P. Morgan cited a policy of not discussing clients' business.
When the stock market crashed in 2000, the Central States pension fund had big bets on technology and telecommunication stocks, energy trading companies and foreign stocks. Some of these stocks became nearly worthless. But the resulting carnage was not apparent to many rank-and-file Teamsters until last winter, when plan officials announced that benefits would have to be curtailed.
Meanwhile, drivers were making their retirement plans.
Tommy Burke, a U.P.S. driver in Fayetteville, N.C., had been planning to retire in 2005, when he would turn 60, and go into the restaurant business. But when the pension fund reduced benefit accruals, it also began enforcing a rule that pensioners could not re-enter the work force, under penalty of having their pensions stopped. Mr. Burke, frustrated, began to research the pension fund on his own, trying to learn just what had happened. In an annual report for the plan, he was shocked to see a reference to a $77 million uncollectible loan.
"How in the world can you have an unsecured loan in the amount of $77 million?" he asked.
When an official of the pension fund visited his union local hall this year, Mr. Burke put that question to him, but the answer only upset Mr. Burke more.
"He said it wasn't a loan at all," Mr. Burke recalled. "It was shares of stock in a bank in Russia, and it went belly up." Mr. Burke said he didn't understand why pension money had been used to buy something so risky, if the Labor Department and federal court officials were monitoring the pension fund.
The Labor Department does not generally regulate investment strategy, however. It was watching for signs of self-dealing, racketeering or other flagrant abuse. From that perspective, the fund was progressing well.
Some Teamsters say more complete answers lie in the official progress reports for the pension fund, maintained for the federal courts as required by the consent decree. But those are secret. The New York Times and the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a reform group within the union, have filed motions with the federal district court in Chicago to make the documents public.
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which is legally separate from the pension fund, commissioned independent investment and actuarial analyses of the pension fund in November 2002.
But the study's findings have not been released to the membership.
Many rank-and-file Teamsters complain that their questions about the pension fund have been met with bromides about unforeseeable market forces, and about an unusual convergence of stock market losses and low interest rates that is always described as "the perfect storm." They are unconvinced.
"If this was all about the stock market and this 'perfect storm,' why weren't all these funds affected the same way?" asked Pete Landon, a truck driver from Detroit who participates in the pension fund.
The best clues may lie in the Western Conference of Teamsters pension fund. In the 1980's, when the Central States plan was shifting from real estate into stocks, the Western Conference trustees, acting on actuarial projections of future pension benefits, put together its conservative portfolio of high-quality bonds and other fixed-income securities. The bonds were held until they matured.
Such an investment portfolio requires little stock research or trading and consequently generates little fee revenue for money managers, but it has served the Western Conference of Teamsters well. From 2000 to the end of 2002, when the Central States fund lost $2.8 billion, the Western Conference fund gained $834 million.
"I think the most prudent, most basic pension funding theory would be: You put aside assets today to most precisely meet your obligations in the future," said Edward A. H. Siedle, a Florida lawyer who specializes in pension fund audits. "You do not try to beat the market. You do not try to maximize returns. But in this country, the plan sponsor doesn't want to do that. The corporation wants to put the minimum aside today, and invest it with maximum efficiency. That's the trouble."