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“The Federal Government’s Little-Known Pension Heist”: The Ones Who Will Suffer The Most Had No Part In Managing The Funds

“Too big to fail” means one thing for banks and another thing for union pension funds.

When banks are on the verge of collapse, Congress bails them out. When union pension funds are in mortal danger, Congress changes the law to let them shaft retirees.

Did you miss that newsflash? So did many of the 407,000 unsuspecting Teamsters, mainly former truck drivers, who received letters in October announcing whether their pension benefits will be cut.

Two-thirds of them got bad news. The Central States Pension Fund claims it will be reducing members’ retirement checks by an average of 23 percent. Union activists say that figure is much higher, and for some the reductions will top 60 percent.

That means hardship for people who have deferred compensation for their entire work lives in exchange for a pension. Bills won’t be paid and mortgages won’t be met — and it will be through no fault of their own.

It once was illegal to cut promised pension benefits. But at the end of 2014 Congress voted to change that — for some. It did so with no debate and no hearings. The Multi-Employer Pension Reform Act was attached to a must-pass omnibus spending bill. President Barack Obama signed it a few days later.

The law permitted the so-called multi-employer pension plans, run jointly by unions and employers, to apply to the Treasury Department to reduce benefits. And that’s what Central States did in October. Union member will notionally get a chance to vote on the cuts, but the Treasury Department can override that outcome. Count on it to do so.

Multi-employer pension plans are clearly in trouble. They cover more than 10 million workers and they are mostly underfunded. The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., the federal agency that backstops pensions, would not be able to withstand the failure of the Central States fund. (The federal program is also in trouble, reporting a $76 billion deficit in mid-November, and its estimated exposure to future losses runs to the hundreds of billions.)

How did the situation get to this drastic point, and what should be done?

First of all, Central States is not in trouble because of mob skimming, as some might presume. Yes, it was set up by the notorious Teamsters President Jimmy Hoffa in 1955, and he was later convicted of improper use of funds from the pension. Courts intervened in the early 1980s, and Goldman Sachs and Northern Trust were set up as fiduciaries.

The main factors in Central States’ decline have been deregulation, de-unionization and demographics. Following the trucking deregulation of the 1980s, numerous companies went under, adding to the pension’s burdens. Over the decades, union membership has declined and retirees have lived longer.

The financial crisis of 2008-09 hurt as well. In 2007, Central States had $27 billion; it has since lost one-third of its assets. It is currently paying out $3.46 in pension benefits for every dollar it receives through worker’s contributions.

However one apportions the blame, the ones who will suffer the most had no part in managing the funds. And the whole point of federal pension guarantees is protecting such people. A more fair resolution would be to bolster federal pension protection.

Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Rep. Marcy Kaptur of Ohio have introduced companion bills, the Keep Our Pension Promises Act. They would prop up the vulnerable pension funds through changes in the tax code affecting wealthier people.

Not all union-involved pension funds are in such straits. But when they do get into trouble, it’s fashionable for some politicians and opinion-page blowhards to blast the misfortune as just deserts. We need to remember that all benefits are compensation. Workers take them in lieu of wages, and to take them back once they have been earned is, well, theft.

Why is it that no one but the retired workers — the only people who have held up their side of the bargain through their years of labor — are being made to suffer the consequences?

 

By: Mary Sanchez, Opinion-age Columnist for The Kansas City Star; The National Memo, November 27, 2015

November 29, 2015 Posted by | Congress, Multi-Employer Pension Reform Act, Pension Funds, Unions | , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

“Fire And Brimstone Coming Down From The Sky”: Scott Walker Vows To ‘Wreak Havoc’ On Washington; As If That Would Be A Good Thing

Can one candidate steal adopt another candidate’s tone and thereby revive his struggling campaign? Scott Walker, currently languishing at around four percent in Republican primary polls, is going to try.

So today, Walker will deliver a speech meant to capture the prevailing sentiment in his party, by means of a promise to “wreak havoc” on the nation’s capital. That may sound like a joke, but it isn’t. Zeke Miller reports:

“To wreak havoc on Washington, America needs a leader with real solutions,” Walker will say. “Political rhetoric is not enough — we need a plan of action. Actions speak louder than words. I have a plan to move this country forward. To wreak havoc on Washington, America also needs a leader who has been tested. I have been tested like no one else in this race. We passed those tests and now, I am ready to lead this exceptional country.”

Perhaps in the speech’s exciting denouement, Walker will quote “Ghostbusters” and promise “fire and brimstone coming down from the sky, rivers and seas boiling, 40 years of darkness, earthquakes, volcanoes, the dead rising from the grave, human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!”

Do Republican voters really want Washington to be overtaken by “havoc”? Some politicians say they’ll reform Washington, or clean it up, or change the way it does business. But havoc? It certainly shows that Walker is not going to bother telling Republican voters that governing is complicated, and you need someone who can navigate the processes and institutions of Washington if you’re going to achieve the substantive goals you and your party share.

Which is perhaps understandable, given the fact that in current polls, if you combine the support for Donald Trump and Ben Carson — the two candidates with zero government experience, who have never run for office before, and who promise that all the problems we face have easy, simple solutions — you get about 50 percent of the Republican electorate.

So Walker, whose fall has coincided with Trump’s rise, seems ready to try anything to emulate the current frontrunner. There’s precedent for that — in past primaries, when one candidate has won support with a particular message or style, other candidates have often tried to adopt some of it. In 2000, when John McCain was successfully portraying himself as a reformer, George W. Bush started calling himself “a Reformer With Results,” and it actually seemed to work. It was possible because it’s only a couple of steps from “reformer” to “reformer with results,” so voters could decide that while they liked McCain’s reform record, Bush offered something similar, but even better.

Walker’s theory seems to be that there are voters now supporting Donald Trump who’ll say, “I like that Trump is smashing things, so if Scott Walker wants to utterly lay waste to Washington, DC, sign me up!” This seems implausible, to say the least.

Earlier this week, the National Review published an article entitled “Scott Walker: What Went Wrong?“, which sums up the prevailing sentiment among Republicans about the Wisconsin governor. Before the race began in earnest, Walker was the thinking person’s choice to become the Republican nominee, in large part because he offered something for everyone. His union-busting and tax-cutting would appeal to economic conservatives, his evangelical roots would appeal to social conservatives, as a governor he could argue that he has executive experience, and his battles with Democrats in his state showed him to be the kind of partisan warrior partisans like. Many commentators, myself included, thought this would be a powerful combination. We put Walker in the top tier of Republican contenders, along with Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.

While there’s still plenty of time before the voting starts and things could (and probably will) change, for now that assessment doesn’t look so hot. Trump, on the other hand, has demonstrated the degree to which Republican voters hold not only the federal government but their own party’s leaders in contempt. As he’d say, they’re losers, politicians who have been making promises to their constituents for years (we’re going to repeal Obamacare any day now!) but have been utterly unable to deliver. If you want to capitalize on that sentiment, you can do it substantively, by moving your positions on some important issues, or you can do it stylistically, which is what Walker looks to be trying to do.

The degree to which Trump’s success would influence the other candidates is something we’ve been trying to figure out for a while now. Would he pull them to the right on immigration as they tried to capture some of his voters, or would they present themselves as more thoughtful and reasonable, to heighten the contrast with Trump? The question could matter a great deal in the general election (presuming Trump is not the nominee), because if they choose to be more like Trump, they’ll harm themselves among the voters they’d need next fall. But it may not be possible even in the primaries to win over Trump’s voters by trying to be more like him. No matter what you promise to do to Washington, you just can’t out-Trump Trump.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Senior Writer, The American Prospect; Contributor, The Plum Line Blog, The Washington Post, September 9, 2015

September 11, 2015 Posted by | Donald Trump, GOP Presidential Candidates, Scott Walker | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“It’s Increasingly Obvious That Scott Walker Sucks”: When You’re As Bad At Campaigns As Scott Walker, You Should Just Give Up

Scott Walker’s presidential campaign is only a little over 50 days old, and it’s increasingly obvious that Scott Walker sucks. Not for his record or what he believes, although both of those are – to borrow a phrase from William Safire – extremely sucky. But Scott Walker is not good at this campaign thing.

A good campaign introduces a candidate and his best ideas to sympathetic and like-minded voters through a combination of events, press coverage and paid outreach, allowing him or her to attract campaign donations and new supporters alike. A bad campaign forces a candidate to get on the phone to reassure his existing donors that he exists and is going to abandon the “sinking into obscurity” tactic that hadn’t been working. A truly terrible campaign is at hand when the most widely-reported news story is the candidate’s old claim that his bald spot totally isn’t genetic but comes from banging his head against the underside of a cabinet.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way: one of Walker’s selling points was winning three elections in five years (the first one, the recall, then the reelection). In theory, Walker should have been the most experienced, most natural and most effortless Republican candidate. Jeb Bush hasn’t run this decade; Ted Cruz only ran once; Chris Christie is dogged by corruption allegations; Rick Perry has the mental aptitude of two dogs in an overcoat; and Rand Paul was gifted his father’s movement and all his out-of-state donors but none of his charisma at talking about basing an international currency on stuff you dig out of the ground.

Walker should have been able to campaign circles around everyone else in the race. Instead, he’s getting his rear end handed to him by a meringue-haired hotelier and a political neophyte surgeon who speaks with the dizzy wonderment of someone trying to describe their dream from last night while taking mushrooms for the first time.

Donald Trump’s existence in the race actually seems to be goading Walker into looking worse, when you’d think that The Donald’s hogging all the attention might have helped Walker avoid embarrassing revelations. After all, Walker’s political record basically involves refusing to tell anyone what his plans are and then doing something politically craven: he first campaigned on fixing Wisconsin’s budget, then once elected decided that it was public-sector unions’ fault and used a short-term crisis as an excuse to gut them; he evaded discussion about potential anti-union “right-to-work” legislation by calling it a distraction, then signed a right-to-work bill; he ducked questions about legislating more abortion restrictions, then signed a 20-week abortion ban.

And that doesn’t even get into the hail of convictions and indictments in his administration and the campaign finance investigation that suddenly stopped thanks to Wisconsin Supreme Court justices who received donations from many of the same groups being investigated. Walker was always going to have trouble with the scrutiny of a national campaign, outside those justices’ reach and outside the demographics of an overwhelmingly white state whose racial divisions he heightened with the help of a sycophantic right-wing media.

Instead, Walker seems to have felt that any gap in his coverage should have an unforced error hurled through it. He’s blamed cop-shootings (which are down since the Bush Administration) on President Obama and declared himself the candidate who can heal racial divides by getting black people to forgive, instead of protest, racists and racist violence. Instead of just mouthing the Republican repeal-and-replace Obamacare mantra, he came up with an actual replacement plan for the other candidates to criticize – a medley of conservative ideas so old they’ve got whiskers – while his competitors simply promise to deregulate the sucker and tell poor people they can pay for healthcare with trickling-down Ayn Rand fun-bucks. Walker even unsuccessfully tried his hand at xenophobic Trumpism, calling out Barack Obama for meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping – the same Chinese president that Walker himself flew to China to meet.

And, most incredibly, last weekend Walker started talking about the need to secure the border with Canada: not only securing it, but building a wall, never mind the fact that the border is 3,500 miles longer than the US-Mexico border and goes through four of the Great Lakes. When you start speculating about a US-Canada wall, maybe you should be doing literally anything else; this gig is probably just not for you when your most recent big idea is seeing what happens when you confront a wholly unnecessary problem with a solution that’s completely insane.

Still, Walker soldiers on, trying to get political mileage out of being a Harley Davidson owner, a problematic and confused form of symbolism at best. It’s not like you have to do or be anyone to buy a Harley – they sell bikes on the basis of currency, not biker credibility. Harley Davidson is, however, a union company that has benefited from millions in state subsidies and government assistance during the 2007-8 financial crisis – not quite the right fit for an anti-union, anti-government assistance poster boy.

Walker, touring New Hampshire on said Harley, seems to love any photo op when he’s in his leather jacket, though it does nothing to obscure the fact that he looks like he wakes up every morning and frowns at 30 identical chambray button-downs before picking one to tuck into one of 30 identical flat-front chinos. Scott Walker looks like every dad who is trying too hard to look cool during his Saturday afternoon trip to Home Depot to buy an Allen wrench because he lost the one that came with his wife’s Ikea Hemnes dressing table.

But trying and failing to look hardcore is sort of a thing with Walker. On the debate stage near a one-man burn unit like Donald Trump, Walker did everything short of vanish into the background. At CPAC, he burnished his credibility as someone who can stop Isis by saying, “If I can take on 100,000 protesters, I can do the same across the world. But he didn’t take on 100,000 protesters. During the protests, he slunk to and from the Wisconsin state capitol via underground tunnels and his legislature hasrepeatedly revised rules to restrict capitol protests. He even lied about having his car threatened.

On Tuesday, a benighted Walker told CNBC that he doesn’t think he’s a career politician: “A career politician, in my mind, is somebody who’s been in Congress for 25 years,” he said. Walker, who is 47, first ran for office at age 22, and finally did so successfully at age 25. That was 22 years ago. When you have negligible work experience outside your current field, which you’ve been in for nearly half your time on this earth, sorry, it’s your career. It’s like someone who just drank a case of 3.2% beer claiming he’s sober because he didn’t touch any hard liquor. Sure, pal, take the keys and fire up the road beast and try to peel out of here.

The longer a presidential campaign goes on, the more fundamental truths you inevitably encounter, usually things the candidates and their handlers labor tirelessly to obscure. But sometimes the revelations come fast, and when they do, they are usually particularly unkind.

Scott Walker should’ve been the Republicans’ – or at least the Koch Brothers’ – Dark Money Knight, riding manfully to Washington on his union-busting, climate-change-denying Harley, driving the real career politicians from the city like Sobieski lifting the siege of Vienna. Instead, he’s looking more like a man destined to return to Madison with a wad of Delta Sky Miles to haunt the capitol tunnels, a wraith occasionally seizing hapless passersby at underground crossroads and demanding they tell him if they’ve seen Ronald Reagan, what causes male-pattern baldness and how big Canada is.

 

By: Jeb Lund, The Guardian, September 3, 2015

September 6, 2015 Posted by | GOP Presidential Candidates, Koch Brothers, Scott Walker | , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“A Ferocious Corporate Overlord”: No Surprise; Trump Is A Union Buster At His Own Hotel

Their boss is famous for firing people with merciless gusto. So you can imagine it took just as much chutzpah for the workers at the Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas to rally today and demand the right to unionize and to gain respect on the job.

While the Donald seeks election to a new post, roughly 500 workers at the hotel are focusing on a very different vote: They’ve been pushing to form a union for months, and are trying to snatch a bit of Trump’s campaign spotlight this summer to call on him “Make America Great Again” right on his home turf. As a recent ad for the unionization campaign proclaims: “We think that working for Mr. Trump in Las Vegas is a chance to make our lives better…but only if he pays us the same wages and benefits as everyone else working on the Strip.”

Of course, what do they expect from the man who’s built a brand for himself as a ferocious corporate overlord? His attitude on the campaign trail is as ruthless as his management style, laced with racial invective and almost self-caricaturing jingoism. (Not to mention hypocrisy—just ask the many low-wage immigrant laborers he has exploited over the years). But amid the buffoonery, the local hospitality union, Culinary Workers Union Local 226, is pressing serious charges of labor violations and denouncing his operations as a bastion of union busting in an otherwise union town.

In fact, the nearby Las Vegas strip and downtown area have a roughly 95 percent union density. Local 226, a Nevada affiliate of UNITE HERE, recently sealed several multi-year contracts covering tens of thousands of local food-service workers, housekeepers, and other hospitality staff, featuring wages and benefits topping $20 an hour, full health and retirement benefits, and workplace-grievance procedures. Not surprisingly, Trump’s staff is heavily comprised of immigrants whose terms of work lag behind union hospitality workers in benefits, wages, and job security.

About 86 percent of workers in the planned bargaining unit have signed “Union Yes” cards. UNITE HERE is seeking neutrality from the employer and a straight card-check majority vote for unionization, rather than plodding through the NLRB ballot process. Nonetheless, according to the union, the management has run a stealth campaign to persuade hotel staff that organizing is not in their best interest.

According to NLRB charges filed by the union, five hotel workers were “unfairly suspended for exercising their legal right to wear a union button and organize their coworkers” last year (they were eventually reinstated with back pay, along with an agreement to post workers rights publicly and not interfere with future organizing). Last June, the union filed new charges alleging the management “violated the federally protected rights of workers to participate in union activities” including “incidents of alleged physical assault, verbal abuse, intimidation, and threats by management.” The workers charged the managers with blocking organizers from distributing pro-union literature in the workers’ dining room, while stealthily allowing anti-union activists to campaign during work hours.

Sebastian Corcordel, who came to the United States from Romania over a decade ago and has been working as a server at Trump International since it opened in 2008, hopes a union can provide the job security he feels his workplace has long lacked, along with long-overdue raises. The resistance facing the campaign, in his view, underscores how badly the staff needs basic protections and grievance procedures at work.

“I see [this] with myself, and with my coworkers. They try to [apply] pressure: Don’t do this, don’t do this, don’t go with the union,” he says of the management, pointing to a flurry of anti-union propaganda flyers and posters. Some coworkers are wary of the organizing drive, he concedes: “Some of them are very very afraid to be a part of the union…[but] It’s their right, and nobody can retaliate against them.” And when others criticize his support for the campaign, the proud naturalized citizen replies, “This is my right. Like the right to vote.”

The Trump workers build on a legacy of social movements on the Strip. In the 1960s, Las Vegas was a battlefield for civil-rights struggles in the push to desegregate casinos. In later years racial conflicts would erupt and intersect periodically with labor strife, as militant black working-class communities formed the backbone of the gambling industry. Under the leadership of former hotel worker turned union chief Hattie Canty, UNITE HERE’s multiethnic coalition staged massive strikes and won contracts that set a remarkably high bar for labor rights in the post-industrial Sunbelt economy. Christopher Johnson on BlackPast.org notes: “By 1996, room maids could earn approximately $9.25 an hour; more than double the average wage for hotel maids in other cities. For Hattie Canty, as with most unionized workers, these wages had enabled a middle class lifestyle.”

But Vegas’s good fortunes are fleeting, The recession hit the low-wage workforce hard, and unemployment spiked among Nevada’s black and Latino populations.

As a core immigrant job sector, the hospitality industry has actually managed to rebound somewhat, compared to another major industry for low-wage immigrants, construction, making the Vegas hotels that much more vital to the Latino community’s long-term economic recovery. Still, both industries are rife with occupational hazards, abuse and discrimination. Embattled unions like Local 226 are holding the line in Vegas against the brand of neoliberal hegemony Trump champions.

Trump’s election platform promises the deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants and sealing the borders, supposedly to protect American workers. But Corcordel scoffs at the notion of immigrant workers’ somehow taking more than they give to the economy—particularly the chunk of it controlled by Trump himself:

The entire hotel is immigrants.… So I don’t know why he’s against immigrants, because we do our job very fairly and we help him too to grow [the business].… how you gonna have the hotel without workers to work?

While Trump trumpets his plan to make the country “great again” and “improve jobs, wages and security for all Americans,” the new Americans who make his businesses run each day hope their boss comes around to letting them finally improve their own jobs, wages, and security—by forming their own more perfect union.

 

By: Michelle Chen, The Nation, August 21, 2015

 

August 24, 2015 Posted by | Donald Trump, Immigrant Laborers, Unions | , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“The Church Of Organized Labor”: Scott Walker’s Evangelical Faith And Union-Busting Do Not Go Hand In Hand

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is better known for his union-busting prowess than his evangelical faith, but in recent months he’s been talking more openly about the latter. And for good reason: his bid for the Republican presidential nomination may well rise or fall on whether he can persuade his fellow believers to rally behind him rather than, say, Mike Huckabee. Walker has fashioned a religiously resonant brand (“Our American Revival”) for his free-market gospel, and the early polls from Iowa suggest evangelicals buy it.

But if history is any indication, evangelicals’ faith could complicate Walker’s anti-labor stance. For as much as Walker sings the praises of neoliberalism, evangelicalism has often resonated with the conviction enshrined in the old Wobblie hymn: There is power in a union.

Evangelicals played pivotal roles in launching the American labor movement. Andrew Cameron—a Scottish immigrant, accomplished printer, and devout believer—helped to found the National Labor Union in 1866. The longtime Chicagoan went on to become internationally known for his advocacy on behalf of the (then controversial) eight-hour workday. For Cameron, organized labor was more than just compatible with Christianity; it was a fundamentally Christian response to Gilded Age capitalism, which, whatever the free market boosters said, was patently unfair. As he put it in an 1867 edition of the Workingman’s Advocate, his nationally-circulated labor paper, “Poverty exists because those who sow do not reap; because the toiler does not receive a just and equitable proportion of the wealth which he produces.” Cameron—who constantly quoted the Bible and never missed a chance to point out that Jesus had been a workingman—went to his grave believing that “the Gospel of Christ sustains us in our every demand.” He was hardly alone. Industrializing Chicago was a hub for pro-union Christianity.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, evangelicals such as James W. Kline held major leadership positions in the American Federation of Labor and its member unions. In 1911 Kline, then president of the International Brotherhood of Blacksmiths, traveled to San Francisco and was in the midst of heated strike negotiations when he received a telegram from his Bible class back home. It read in part, “God bless you in your efforts to do that for which the Master came.”

Throughout the Great Depression evangelicals, like many other Americans, poured into labor’s swelling ranks. Matthew Pehl has shown that, in Detroit, a number of African American religious leaders successfully persuaded their flocks to give organized labor—with its long history of racially exclusionary practices—another chance. Such breakthroughs keyed the United Automobile Workers’ campaign to turn Motor City into a union town. Meanwhile, in and around the Missouri Bootheel, Pentecostal-Holiness revivals propelled white and black sharecroppers alike into the ranks of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union (STFU). In his book Spirit of Rebellion, Jarod Roll points out that STFU locals often opened their meetings with prayers, hymns, and bible readings. Little wonder that one Arkansas farmer later recalled, “When they first started talking about the union I thought it was a new church.”

To be sure, this is not the whole story. Important books by Darren Dochuk, Bethany Moreton, and Kevin Kruse underscore that during these same New Deal years and on into the Cold War, corporate executives worked with leading evangelicals to baptize free enterprise as the best way forward for “Christian America.” But their success was never complete. In a deeply researched new study, Ken and Elizabeth Fones-Wolf show that even in the deeply conservative postwar South, the moral status of organized labor remained a live question. A number of believers insisted, in the words of one protest banner, “Religion & Unionism Go Hand In Hand.”

They still do, even among some present-day evangelicals—including members of Walker’s own nondenominational congregation. Meadowbrook Church in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, will not be mistaken for the crusading Moral Majority of old. Its leaders may share some of the same conservative views, but they typically steer clear of direct political engagement. This commitment to quietism was sorely tested starting in 2011, however, when Walker’s assault on public unions stirred up dissension within the congregation. In the wake of their governor and brother in Christ signing the now-notorious Act 10 into law, some at Meadowbrook were infuriated, others elated. People on both sides of the issue called for their senior pastor, John Mackett, to weigh in, which he declined to do. Some left the church, but the trouble did not so easily subside. The fact that, as late as 2013, Mackett was still calling for his members to end the “turmoil” and “slander” and “name calling” suggests that pro-union sentiment at Meadowbrook was strong and persistent.

So don’t be fooled. Especially if the Walker campaign’s bid to consolidate support among religious conservatives succeeds, it may start to seem like evangelicalism and anti-labor are of a piece. The reality is that while union-busting may be the reigning GOP orthodoxy, it is far from settled gospel truth.

 

By: Heath W. Carter, Assistant Professor of History at Valparaiso University; The New Republic, July 12, 2015

July 13, 2015 Posted by | Evangelicals, Organized Labor, Scott Walker | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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