Wisconsin grassroots retirees win on pensions

By Bill Kaplan

Last Friday, after a grassroots campaign led by Wisconsin retirees, the Treasury Department rejected sharp pension reductions proposed by the Central States Pension Fund (CSPF). The Wisconsin activists worked with retirees across the nation to stave off cruel pension cuts for 400,000, including 25,000 Wisconsinites. Here's the backdrop.

The nation, including Wisconsin, has become two societies with the middle class no longer the majority. And, the national-state war on unions has disarmed the working class. The income and wealth gap is a chasm with the rich in the driver's seat. Moreover, most Americans no longer have a workplace retirement plan. And, Social Security is under fire. Two Americas.

Yahoo, a failing company led by Wisconsinite Marissa Mayer (Wausau), has eliminated thousands of jobs. "Mayer has steadfastly refused to use the word 'layoff'.... (using) the term 'remix' instead" (New York Times). Notwithstanding the possible breakup of Yahoo, Mayer could walk away with a $55 million "golden parachute". Fittingly, Yahoo's holiday party in December, 2015 was a "Roaring Twenties - themed affair ...." (New York Times). Then there are regular folks.

In December, 2014 a provision was attached to a must pass omnibus budget bill to keep the federal government open. There was no debate or separate vote on the provision which allowed the CSPF to propose sharply reducing pensions to maintain solvency. The CSPF does have serious problems: still recovering from its decline during the Bush Great Recession, poor management and decreased employer participation. The corporate solution was to ask for 50 percent reduction in pension benefits for many and 70 percent for others.

The reaction from hard-working plan participants and retirees was incredulous, having given up wage increases for promised lifetime pension benefits. Anger gave way to organizing. Bob Amsden, a Milwaukee area retired truck driver, took the lead. He and others put on suit and tie or their best to come to D.C. and fight for social justice. The retirees were respectful but tough advocates, meeting with Democratic and GOP members of Congress. They struck a nerve.

A big D.C. rally headlined Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Tammy Baldwin, Wisconsin Democratic Rep. Gwen Moore, GOP Sens. Chuck Grassley (Iowa) and Rob Portman (Ohio), other members of Congress and Amsden. Sen. Baldwin did more, signing on to a bipartisan protest letter and sponsoring legislation to prevent pension cuts and help make pension plans solvent (close estate tax loophole). Wisconsin GOP Sen. Ron Johnson met with retirees and sent a letter asking good questions, but did not join with other GOP senators in calling for stronger action.

When the retirees won on Friday, Amsden said: "We took down big money and we won the first battle. We know the war's going to go on." Baldwin and Moore issued strongly-worded statements "applauding" the Treasury Department's rejection of "deep pension cuts". And, Wisconsin Democratic Senate candidate Russ Feingold said: "Wisconsinites see Washington politicians endorse big tax loopholes for giant corporations .... while putting the pensions of middle (working) class families on the chopping block." Hope.

 -- Kaplan wrote a guest column from Washington, D.C. for the Wisconsin State Journal from 1995-2009.

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