Western States OPEIU Pension moves to cut benefits

A union pension plan for office workers is applying to the U.S. Treasury Department for permission to cut retiree benefits up to 30 percent in order to halt a slide to insolvency. Portland-based Western States Office and Professional Employees Pension Fund covers 7,400 current and former members of nine Western United States locals of Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU). They’re mostly clerical staff at labor unions and defunct or no-longer-unionized trucking companies.

To us that are retired, this guarantee is what we based everything on, and now they’re saying they’re going to take it away.” — CNF retiree Evangelyn Huntington

Until 2014, multi-employer pension plans like Western States weren’t allowed to reduce benefits for workers who were already retired. But a law passed that year allows pensions to cut retiree benefits to a certain extent if that can prevent insolvency. The law says pension cuts must progressively phase out for retirees aged 75 to 80, and benefits can’t be cut at all for those 80 and over. 

Pension plan participants get to vote on the proposed cuts, but can only stop the cuts if a majority of total participants vote to reject them — not just a majority of those voting.   

Retiree Evangelyn Huntington calls that outright majority requirement a “fraud of the highest order.” Huntington went to work at the Portland headquarters of Consolidated Freightways in 1978 as a mainframe computer operator, and stayed when her division was spun off as CNF Transportation in 1996. In 2003, angry over the role played by OPEIU Local 11’s leader in the Capital Consultants fraud case, she and her co-workers voted to decertify Local 11 and go non-union. That 132-106 vote meant the Western States pension fund lost it’s largest remaining employer, with 257 employees. Once-mighty trucking company Consolidated Freightways had gone bankrupt the year before, ending pension contributions for about 400 union office workers.

Western States is typical of the roughly 100 union-sponsored multi-employer pension plans that are currently heading for insolvency— in that its investments lost value in the 2000 and 2008 financial crashes, but it can’t recover from those losses because retirees and former employees greatly outnumber active workers whose employers are making contributions to the plan. Western States today has 11 times as many retirees and vested former workers as current workers.

Retirees came to greatly outnumber active employees because of a long slow decline in OPEIU membership. Computerization reduced the number of office workers needed. Local unions that employed OPEIU members were themselves declining in members, and merged and laid off office staff. Office staff at unionized trucking firms were laid off when their firms went out of business, or like CNF, voted to go non-union. In the mid-1980s, Western States had over 500 contributing employers. Today it has 168.

Now, its participants are presented with a choice between evils: Painful cuts now, or even more painful cuts in 18 years. Without the cuts, Western States will run out of money by 2036.

If Huntington is still around then, she’ll be 87. She plans to vote against the cuts, which for her amount to over $500 a month. She was 61 when she retired. Since then her health has worsened and she doesn’t feel she can return to the workforce.

“To us that are retired, this guarantee is what we based everything on, and now they’re saying they’re going to take it away,” Huntington said. “What am I going to do? If I get it reduced now, there goes any little cushion I have if anything goes wrong.”

Meanwhile, retired union bookkeeper Christie Gronquist says she plans on voting for the cuts, to avoid having to suffer the bigger cut later. Gronquist, also a member of OPEIU Local 11, took early retirement in 2008 at age 57. After 29 years as bookkeeper, first at Machinists District Lodge 24, then United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555, she gets a $1,283 a month pension. That will drop to $1,140 a month under the proposed cuts. [It’s not the full 30 percent because of a rule that cuts can’t go below 110 percent of a federally insured minimum.]

“It’s not going to kill me,” Gronquist says. “It just kind of breaks your heart that you plan on that and then it gets cut.”

Western States’ May 15 application to the U.S. Treasury Department was actually its third attempt. The previous two were withdrawn on the advice of Treasury officials for technical reasons. Once the Treasury Department approves the application as expected, a vote by mail will take place within 30 days. If it isn’t rejected by a majority of participants, the cuts will take effect Oct. 1.


Who’s affected?

For Oregon and SW Washington, pension cuts proposed by Western States OPEIU Pension Fund would affect current and former office staff at the following local unions and OPEIU-represented employers:

  • Catholic Archdiocese of Portland
  • Asbestos Workers Local 36
  • Assn. of Western Pulp & Paper Workers
  • Bakers Local 114
  • Boilermakers Locals 242 and 500
  • Cement Masons Local 555
  • Columbia-Pacific Building Trades
  • Consolidated Freightways
  • CNF/ConWay
  • CWA Local 7901
  • Machinists District Lodge W-24
  • IBEW & United Workers Credit Union
  • IBEW Local 48
  • ILWU Locals 40 and 8
  • Ironworkers Local 29 and 516
  • Painters District Council 5
  • Laborers Local 483
  • Labor’s Community Service Agency
  • Linoleum and Carpet Layers Local 1236
  • Machinists/Boilermakers Credit Union
  • Manor Management Services
  • NECA-IBEW Training Trust
  • Northwest Labor Press
  • Northwest Natural Gas
  • Northwest Oregon Labor Council
  • OPEIU Local 11
  • Oregon Federation of Nurses
  • Oregon State Building Trades Council
  • Oregon AFL-CIO
  • Pacific NW Ironworkers Credit Union
  • Pacific NW Council of Carpenters
  • Painters Local 10
  • Portland Local 8 Credit Union
  • Sheet Metal Workers Local 16
  • UA Local 290
  • UA Local 290 Training Trust
  • UFCW Local 555

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