Thousands of retired Teamsters head to D.C. in battle over Central States Pension Fund

Retired Teamsters fight pension cuts

The Central States Pension Fund has proposed cuts of 50% or more to many retirees. They recently marched outside of YRC (Yellow Freight) headquarters in Overland Park to voice their concerns.
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The Central States Pension Fund has proposed cuts of 50% or more to many retirees. They recently marched outside of YRC (Yellow Freight) headquarters in Overland Park to voice their concerns.

Thousands of retired Teamsters will rally in the nation’s capital this week for their most public stand yet to protect their pension checks and, they say, maybe yours.

One organizer estimates 2,000 union retirees will travel to Washington, D.C., to lobby their elected representatives on Wednesday and rally Thursday on the Capitol lawn. They hail from Kansas City and rural Illinois, from Florida and North Carolina, from Wisconsin, Tennessee, Nebraska and other states.

They hope a Washington stage will help spread their story.

“That’s what we’re looking for. We need some attention brought out on what’s going on,” said Greg Byrnes, who will fly to Washington on Tuesday from Milwaukee. “It’s a big mess created maybe three decades ago, and now it’s finally coming to a head.”

The mess is the Central States Pension Fund. It covers 400,000 active and retired workers but is expected to go broke in 10 years. The retirees are fighting the pension fund’s controversial plan to stay afloat by reducing the amount of their monthly checks, many of them by at least half.

Central States retirees face an uneasy deadline in the first week of May. That is when mediator Kenneth Feinberg is expected to rule on whether the pension fund’s proposed cuts are legal under a 2014 law. Many retirees see reasons for Feinberg to block the plan, but they also hope something else will happen before then.

“There’s a lot of buzz out there that something’s in the wind, and prior to Feinberg’s announcement,” said Bob Amsden, a Wisconsin retiree and a coordinator of the Washington rally.

Hundreds of retired Teamsters attend meeting to air concerns about proposed pension cuts.

Amsden said that one hope is to get Congress to overturn the law that allows Central States to propose cuts to existing Teamster pension checks but not to protect only Teamsters’ pensions. He said a successful outcome for Central States could lead other struggling pension funds to propose similar cuts.

Retired Teamsters already have held local rallies and turned out in large numbers to a series of town-hall sessions that Feinberg held, including one in Kansas City. But the Washington rally promises to be their biggest showing.

Organizers have trouble estimating the expected turnout. Retirees are coming from dozens of local committees that formed to fight the proposed cuts. Amsden said he knows of 45 retirees who will fly out of Milwaukee and 140 from around the state. He has been told about 60 retirees are coming from Minnesota, and various committees have reported filling about two dozen buses.

Others simply plan to make the drive in and aren’t so easy to count. Linda and Chuck Michael, who live near Monmouth, Ill., are driving and plan to stay with their daughter in Manassas, Va. They have gone to a few meetings about fighting the Central States cuts and added this trip with encouragement from Byrnes, who lives near Kirkwood, Ill.

“This is something we could do to support it,” Chuck Michael said of the trip.

Work also continues on the rally’s agenda.

Late last week, James P. Hoffa, the general president of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, was added to Thursday’s list of scheduled speakers, and U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Kansas City Democrat, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, have secured spots. Planning for the event began months ago, and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters has helped the retirees to secure permits, a stage and sound system for the rally.

Even getting hotel rooms has been a battle. It is cherry blossom season in the nation’s capital, and there’s a national police convention in town.

Some of the retirees going to the rally feel the threatened cuts to their pensions is nothing short of a crime. They have worked 30 years in many cases only to end up with a truckload of broken promises.

Ruth Puck said that she and her husband, Mike, face a 56 percent cut to the checks he earned by working 33 years for employers paying into the Central States fund. It’s the foundation of the Moline, Ill., couple’s nest egg. Ruth Puck ran her own business and never set up a retirement account because they had her husband’s pension.

Mike Puck drove a truck at night, and Ruth Puck kept the children quiet during the day so he could sleep. They took one vacation in 22 years and put both their children through college.

“Thirty-eight years ago, we planned our lives around that pension,” Ruth Puck said.

Some people heading to the rally aren’t even Teamsters. This will be Mary Packett’s fourth trip to the capital over the Central States mess. She is working to protect the pension of her 77-year-old father, Fred Lowry.

Packett is working with retiree committees in five states, helping about 300 get to the rally. She doesn’t mind saying it has been difficult, helping so many of them to book hotels and flights.

“I put it on Facebook, on my Nebraska committee site. Everybody started calling me,” Packett said. “I’m not a travel agent.”

Packett’s goal is to get the pensions secured again. Stopping the proposed cuts still would leave Central States on a course to collapse in a decade. Packett, like many others, holds the federal government largely responsible for the mess.

“The fund needs to be fixed. Government has involved themselves in this fund,” she said.

Some of the couples who are staying at one of the hotels Packett lined up hail from Kansas City, said Dave Scheidt, who works with the Missouri-Kansas City Committee to Protect Pensions. Scheidt said the rate is good and some in the group are turning the trip into a mini-vacation to help justify the cost of travel.

They will stay at the Homewood Suites by Hilton near Baltimore-Washington International Airport. Dawn Dillon, the hotel’s head of sales and by coincidence a diehard Kansas City Chiefs fan, expects at least 75 people from Packett’s work.

Dillon said the hotel has arranged a shuttle to get the retired Teamsters from the hotel to the light-rail system for the trips into the capital and back. Because they have to leave so early, Dillon agreed to pack up a breakfast for each.

“This is how we captured their business,” Dillon said.

Some of the retired Teamsters say the cuts would hurt state and local economies by diminishing the retirees’ purchasing power.

“We put our money into these pensions because they were going to be good pensions,” Scheidt said.

Mark Davis: 816-234-4372, on Twitter @mdkcstar