Teamsters retirees would offer ‘earful’ to Trump team on failing Central States pension

A year after retired Teamsters crowded Bartle Hall to fight looming pension cuts, retiree Wes Epperson and a few others are in Washington this week to continue the battle.

They’re former truck drivers and others among the 400,000 covered by the flagging Central States Pension Fund nationwide. A year ago, fund managers were asking the U.S. Treasury’s permission to reduce current retirees’ checks — many by half or more — to save the fund from collapse.

Hundreds showed up at a Kansas City session with Kenneth Feinberg, whom then-Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew had appointed to handle the case. It was the last of eight town hall sessions Feinberg held on the pension plan’s proposal, which he rejected three months later.

Feinberg’s May 11 ruling saved retirees’ checks from cuts that would have started that July, but perhaps only for a few years. Central States officials said the fund remained on a path to fail within a decade, and urged retirees to seek an answer from Congress.

“We’re still looking for some kind of a solution to our pension problem,” Epperson said Tuesday from the nation’s capital.

He’d traveled there with members of the National United Committee to Protect Pensions, which formed from local committees like one in Kansas City.

Epperson said the group arrived Monday and already had met with Rep. Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri, who had gotten Feinberg to add Kansas City to his list of town hall events last year, and Rep. Vicky Hartzler of Missouri, among others.

One member of the national pension committee was scheduled to attend President Donald Trump’s address to a joint session of Congress Tuesday evening. Sherman Liimatainen, invited by Minnesota’s U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, is vice president and treasurer of the national pension committee.

Last week, local retirees met briefly with Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who was in Topeka to address a Democratic state annual meeting. Sanders has sponsored the Keep Our Pension Promises Act.

Another Central States retiree group in Missouri met with Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri last Friday near St. Louis. She reminded them that new Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin had promised he would meet with Missouri truckers and others covered by Central States.

McCaskill extracted Mnuchin’s promise in January during his confirmation hearings, after she had recalled Trump’s promise “I’m not going to leave you behind.”

Mnuchin replied, “What I will say is I will commit to meet with them, and I will commit to working with your office on us figuring out what is an appropriate bipartisan solution to this issue that I appreciate – the pension issue we’ve talked about several times today – is a significant issue.”

McCaskill’s office confirmed Tuesday it is working on an invitation for Mnuchin.

The Treasury oversees a controversial 2014 law that allowed Central States to seek cuts to current retiree benefits in the face of the fund’s potential collapse. Other pension plans have sought similar approval, and one has been approved.

Other proposed solutions to critically underfunded pensions involve federal assistance to cover guarantees by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., which funds its guarantees from premiums paid by covered pension funds. PBGC’s own resources would be wiped out by a failure of the Central States Pension Fund.

Epperson welcomed the idea of a session with Mnunchin that focused not on stopping imminent cuts to pensions but instead on solutions to ensure those checks can continue.

“We can fill the hall. We did last time,” Epperson said. “We’d love for this guy to get an earful.”

Mark Davis: 816-234-4372, @mdkcstar