By Tom Conway
USW International President
Chad Newcome confided little to his wife over the years about the failing pension fund that threatened their dreams, wanting to spare her the anxiety that haunted him day and night.
But two years ago, after congressional Democrats passed legislation saving dozens of multiemployer pension plans at risk of collapse, Newcome opened up about their brush with financial calamity and how he finally felt free to breathe.
Sadly, Republicans are imperiling the couple’s future all over again with their cruel gambit to cut spending on the backs of working people.
GOP House members last week rammed through a bill that would raise the nation’s borrowing limit and prevent America from defaulting on its debts — but only in exchange for draconian cuts that would cost 200,000 vulnerable children access to Head Start programs, end Meals on Wheels for a million struggling seniors and inexplicably ax housing support in the face of growing homelessness.
The bill would slash billions from schools serving low-income students. And it would claw back money from the 2021 American Rescue Plan, including funds allocated to save 130 or so multiemployer pension plans hurtling toward collapse because of Wall Street recklessness, corporate bankruptcies and industry consolidation, among other factors.
Multiemployer funds, including the one covering Newcome, combine contributions from two or more employers in manufacturing, trucking and other industries. Workers like Newcome, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 14614–1 and an electrician at Tri-County Electric in Morgantown, W.Va., paid into the funds for decades and planned their golden years around them.
These union workers played no role in the plans’ financial troubles. Yet they were the ones who stood to suffer if the funds went under, and it was their advocacy — through rallies, marches, phone calls, emails and post cards — that moved congressional Democrats to save the funds without the support of a single Republican in either the House or Senate.
“This is what we’ve been fighting for. We got the votes we needed,” a joyful Newcome told family members at the time, recalling he felt “like the weight of the world had been lifted off my shoulders.”
But harming working people is sport to pro-corporate Republicans, whose debt ceiling bill puts Newcome’s pension — and those of hundreds of thousands of other Americans — back on the chopping block.
“It has to be something personal, and I believe it has to do with the anti-union stance of the Republicans,” said Newcome.
And they aren’t the only ones opposing Republican efforts to hijack the economy and toy with people’s lives. A growing number of unions, civic groups and everyday citizens are mobilizing in support of Biden’s demand that Congress raise the debt ceiling without any conditions.
“It’s not about fiscal discipline,” Biden said of the Republicans’ scheming. “It’s about cutting benefits for folks that they don’t seem to care much about. It’s about finding ways to squeeze out more of America’s middle class.”
In the meantime, the old worries plague Newcome once more.
More than three decades of climbing, crawling, hauling pipe and pulling wire took a toll on him. He wants to retire in five years, at 60, without having to scrape by.
“You have the option of going early and still being able to provide for your family and live a decent life,” he said of his pension plan, noting he and his 80 co-workers accepted smaller raises over the years in return for larger retirement contributions from the company.
“Now, I’m wondering, when can I go?” he said. “Am I going to be able to travel and do all the things I want to do when I retire?”
Republicans even want to compound life’s struggles for the veterans especially deserving of America’s gratitude and most in need of the nation’s support.
Their debt-ceiling bill would result in unprecedented budget cuts to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs that would eliminate 81,000 VA jobs while also cutting 30 million outpatient health care slots and exacerbating the backlog of disability claims processing.
“Suicide rates are highest among veterans. We have a lot of homeless vets,” fumed Heath Stolte, who chairs USW Local 7–838’s Veterans of Steel committee, pointing out that current and former service members urgently need access to care.
Stolte, who works at the Mueller Co. in Decatur, Ill., served eight years in the Navy as a combat medic assigned to work closely with the Marines. The fourth-generation veteran took part in the Gulf War in 1991 and in Operation Just Cause, the 1989 invasion of Panama that deposed dictator Manuel Noriega.
He recalled the pride he felt last year when delegates to the USW Constitutional Convention voted to establish Veterans of Steel committees at all union locals — recognition of the need to increase support for workers who served.
Although the government also needs to do more for veterans, the Republicans’ bill instead puts some of the nation’s most vulnerable citizens at greater risk, Stolte said, calling to mind two friends who struggle to cope with their military experiences.
“They really can’t live a normal life,” he said.
Stolte said he has difficulty expressing the contempt he feels for members of Congress who praise veterans in public, only to stab them in the back and “strip away” benefits and services earned at great price.
“I think it’s the worst possible thing they could do to the individuals who stood out front and gave their all,” he said.
“They gave everything,” he said, adding that the Republicans want to do the exact opposite. “They take everything.”