By Karen Friedman
I flew into Columbus, Ohio last Thursday to join with 12,000 retired and active miners, truck drivers, warehouse workers, ironworkers, spouses, and others who were part of a historic rally on the lawn outside the Ohio statehouse urging Congress to fix the pension crisis and keep pension promises. The rally was timed to coincide with a hearing being held the following day by the Joint Select Committee on the Solvency of Multiemployer Pension Plans.
It was so great to be with old friends and new friends and to stand together and fight. And while sometimes I know that it’s hard to stay positive when we’ve been fighting for so long, I have to say being at the rally was just what the doctor ordered. Standing in the blazing sun with all these beautiful activists, who were wearing black, green, and yellow shirts with the message “Keep Our Pension Promises,” warmed my heart and my soul. And I really believe with all of us standing together, keeping the pressure on the Joint Select Committee and on Congress, we can and must win – and that was the message that every speaker reinforced.
The speakers at the rally were amazing. The President of the Teamsters Union, James Hoffa, captured the spirit of the rally when he said, “We’ve got to make sure Congress hears our voices!” The Chairman of the National United Committee to Protect Pensions (NUCCP), Mike Walden, gripped the crowd when he said, “We need to make a vow today, that all of our unions, every union, has to come together on this.” If the same number of people at the rally could get to Washington, DC, Walden said “Congress will have to listen.” In her speech, the International President of the Association of Flight Attendants, Sara Nelson, said that this was reminiscent of the days when United stripped their workers of their pensions. She stood with retirees in solidarity and said, “I’ve got your back.” There were also speeches by officials from the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), the Ohio AFL-CIO, the United Steelworkers (USW) District 1, and the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International Union (BCTWG).
The day was capped by an emotionally resonant speech by the United Mine Workers President, Cecil Roberts, who captivated the crowd. At one point, he asked everyone to bow their heads and hold hands and, in the powerful cadence of a preacher, he reminded the thousands of people gathered together that we had all faced battles before. “Every movement in the history of the world has been a movement that took people outside of a building and put them in the streets,” he said. After he finished speaking the crowd screamed itself hoarse and I saw some retirees grab each other in bear hugs, crying from the emotionality of the day, of the long days of fighting, and of the hope that was springing eternal again.
The next day, hundreds of activists headed to the Joint Select Committee on the Solvency of Multiemployer Pension Plans’ hearing, which was convened by co-chair Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Senator Rob Portman (R-OH), who is a member of the Committee. The hearing was held in Ohio because thousands of workers and retirees in the state would be devastated by reduced pensions, and hundreds of employers could be forced into bankruptcy.
Senator Brown started the hearing by asking Rita Lewis, whose late husband’s fight for pensions inspired the Butch Lewis Act, to stand up. Everyone applauded. Senator Brown explained what was at stake with the Joint Select Committee, that they were looking at all options, that they needed a bipartisan solution, and that they need to act fast. “Too much is at stake to retreat into partisan corners,” he said.
Senator Portman reiterated the importance of the hearing and explained that there must be a super majority of Republicans and Democrats on the Joint Select Committee that agree on a solution. But if they do, it will be able to go straight to the floor for a vote, without challenges. Senator Portman reiterated that the sooner we come up with a solution, the less expensive it will be. He said, “our principal objective must be to pass reforms NOW, to address this crisis before it is too late.”
Several other members of the Committee flew in for the event: Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV), Congressman Bobby Scott (D-VA), Congressman Donald Norcross (D-NJ), Congresswoman Debbie Dingell (D-MI) and Congressman Richard Neal (D-MA).
There were six witnesses at the hearing: Mike Walden, the president of NUCCP; Bill Martin, president of Spangler Candy Company; Roberta Dell, Chief Union Steward at Spangler Candy Company; David Gardner, CEO of Alfred Nickels Bakery Inc.; Larry Ward, retired coal miner and former president of UMWA District 6; and Brian Sloane, Apprentice Instructor at Millwrights Local 1090.
Perhaps the most unique testimony was from the pair of witnesses from Spangler Candy Company, which is most famous for making Dum-Dum lollipops. Roberta Dell has worked at the Spangler factory for 46 years. She said that she and her husband both worked at the factory while raising their three sons, until her husband Jim was diagnosed with cancer in 2004. He passed away in 2015 and took care of their three sons in his will, knowing that Roberta had her pension and social security to support herself in retirement. With her pension now at risk, she suddenly finds herself frightened and insecure financially, raising kids on her own, and facing huge expenses. She said to the members of the Committee, “Like so many others, I look to you, I believe in you, have hope and faith in you to help us find a way to save us from this nightmare we are all facing!”
Her employer, Bill Nelson, said that he knows every one of his employees personally and that the company, founded in 1906, wants every one of his employees to get a pension. But if Congress doesn’t intervene and pass a bill (like the Butch Lewis Act) soon, his company will go under and employees will lose jobs, health care and pensions.
All the witnesses were fantastic, and all agreed that a loan program is necessary to solve this crisis. There was a civility and congeniality reflected in the hearing that felt different from being in Washington, DC. And there was something about being in Ohio, being at the rally and then this hearing, that made me believe: We can do this. We can get a fair solution as long as we keep organizing and make sure our voices are heard.
Check out the Joint Select Committee website
Read our fact sheet on Resources for Multiemployer Reform
Write to your members of Congress and tell them to Keep Pension Promises!
Read some articles about the rally and the hearing: