The U.S. House of Representatives passed HR 397 July 24 on a bipartisan vote of 264-169. All 235 House Democrats voted for the bill, as did 29 Republicans. The bill now moves to the Senate, where it faces a difficult road.
HR 397, formally the Rehabilitation for Multiemployer Pensions Act of 2019, protects the benefits union retirees have earned by providing low-interest loans and other assistance to troubled multi-employer pension plans, giving them time to recover their losses and repay the loans.
Sponsors of the legislation note that of the nearly 10 million people nationwide covered by union-sponsored multi-employer plans, about 1.3 million of them are in plans that are quickly running out of money. Among the troubled plans are Western States Office and Professional Employees Pension Fund (members of OPEIU Local 11), and Portland-based Plasterers Local 82 Pension Plan. Both plans in recent months have cut their pension benefits for current and future retirees to save them from insolvency. The OPEIU plan was cut 30% and Plasterers pension cuts ranged from 22% to 31%. The plans were allowed to do that under the 2014 Multiemployer Pension Reform Act, which was rammed through Congress with little debate. If HR 397 passes, those cuts would be reversed, and retirees would be paid retroactively for any benefits they lost.
HR 397 is known as the Butch Lewis Act, named after an Ohio truck driver and member of the Teamsters Central States Pension Plan who fought to protect retirees’ benefits before succumbing to a stroke in December 2015.
His widow Rita joined hundreds of union members in the House Gallery of the Capitol to watch the debate and vote on July 24. The bill is widely supported by organized labor.
“This shows when we all act together we can get anything done. We got Democrats…we got Republicans, and we can get this to the Senate and get the bill passed, and then we can live in peace knowing we have our pensions,” Lewis said.
“We all whooped and cheered,” said Karen Friedman, executive vice president of the Pension Rights Center, “and the members of Congress on the floor looked up at us and waved while they also cheered.”
The Butch Lewis Act was reintroduced in the Senate July 24 by Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). Senate Bill S. 2254 has 26 co-sponsors, including Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon. It goes to the Senate Finance Committee, where Oregon’s Ron Wyden is the ranking Democrat. The committee chair is Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).