By Tom Conway
USW International President
The closer Doug Kamerer got to retirement, the more he feared that he’d never be able to afford it.
Kamerer steadily built up a pension during 35 years as a die setter at Etched Metal Co. in Solon, Ohio, where he and his co-workers often accepted lower raises in return for contributions their company made to a multiemployer retirement fund.
But that fund began failing years ago, and if it crashed, Kamerer knew he and his wife, Toni, would end up spending their senior years just trying to scrape by.
All of those worries evaporated Thursday when President Joe Biden signed a historic stimulus package that will not only lift America out of the COVID-19 recession but help secure the nation’s future.
Biden and congressional Democrats vowed to make working people their top priority, and they delivered on that promise with legislation that addresses the pain and uncertainty the pandemic inflicted on the entire nation.
The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan delivers one of the boldest, most comprehensive investments in working people since the New Deal of the 1930s, and the United Steelworkers (USW) worked alongside other labor unions to ensure Congress passed it.
And just as the New Deal both stabilized a country in crisis and fostered prosperity, the stimulus bill will strengthen America for years to come.
The package extends $300-a-week unemployment benefits and health insurance to workers laid off during the COVID-19 recession, provides $1,400 stimulus checks and tax credits to millions of struggling families, earmarks funds to help schools operate safely and allocates billions for controlling the coronavirus.
But it isn’t enough to confront current hardships. It’s also essential to head off impending threats to the nation’s progress.
That’s why the stimulus includes $86 billion to stabilize about 130 multiemployer pension funds and secure the retirements of 1.3 million workers and retirees, including Kamerer, a member of USW Local 1–243 who’s enrolled in a plan that could go broke in a decade.
“This is huge,” Kamerer, who hopes to retire in four years, said of the pension support. “It’s such good news. What a weight off my mind.”
Multiemployer pension plans combine contributions from two or more employers in fields such as manufacturing, retail, truck driving and entertainment. Companies pay into these funds as part of their workers’ wage and benefit packages and promise to pay retirees pensions based on their wages and years of service.
Although many of the 1,400 multiemployer plans around the country remain financially stable, about 130 are speeding toward insolvency because of factors such as corporate bankruptcies, industry consolidation and investment losses.
The COVID-19 economic downturn put these plans in deeper peril, threatening the futures of workers already struggling because of the recession as well as those who put their lives on the line to keep the nation functioning during the pandemic. Kamerer is among those who reported for work each day while millions of other Americans did their jobs remotely.
“This is our money,” stressed Kamerer, a former local union officer who helped negotiate contracts in which he and his co-workers sacrificed wage increases for pension benefits they’d receive years down the road. “This is part of our compensation package. It’s important that’s understood.”
If the plans collapsed, workers and retirees would lose virtually everything they spent decades building. And a nation that experienced soaring unemployment and poverty during the pandemic cannot afford to let still more citizens get knocked off their feet.
The USW and other unions first sounded the alarm about failing multiemployer pension plans years ago — and fought to save them ever since.
Jim Allen, a retired Appleton Papers worker and USW Local 266 president whose survival depends on his pension, was among many union members who held rallies, lobbied Congress and testified in support of legislation to save the plans.
The Franklin, Ohio, resident and other advocates scored a partial victory last year when the Democratic-controlled House passed the Butch Lewis Act — named for a late union member who championed pension security — to shore up the funds. But the Republican-controlled Senate refused to even consider the legislation, leaving Allen and other pension plan participants ever more concerned about their futures.
“We had to not only hope but pray every day that they’d finally come to their senses and do something,” Allen said.
The Republicans never did, and when the pandemic hit, these plans took yet another blow as companies laid off workers and reduced payments to the funds.
But Biden and congressional Democrats, who gained control of the Senate after the last election, worked with organized labor to make pension security an integral part of the nation’s recovery. In signing the stimulus into law, Biden said the legislation will give “the people that built the country” a “fighting chance.”
While his pension hung in the balance, Kamerer hesitated to think too much about his golden years.
Now, he’s one of millions of Americans who can look to the future with hope because of a stimulus package that will heal the nation and build prosperity.
“People are hurting enough already,” said Kamerer, who plans to travel with his wife and spend more time with family during retirement. “They don’t need more worries about the future.”