The Butch Lewis Emergency Pension Plan Relief Act was passed in mid-March and is a huge victory for American workers and retirees. The law provides relief to 10 million members and retirees of underfunded labor-management multi-employer pension funds. Tens of thousands pension recipients under the funds had endured or were threatened with dramatic cuts in their pensions in recent years, reducing their benefits by nearly half in many cases.
Now those 10 million workers will see their benefits protected for, at minimum, the next 30 years. Pension funds that had already cut benefits for their members will cut checks for back pay to workers in the amount that they were cut. Some retirees may receive up to $15,000. This is possibly the biggest win for workers’ rights in Congress since the passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act in 1993.
The efforts to get the Act passed was led by grassroots union members, fighting back against cuts that no one seemed to care about because it didn’t affect those currently in the workforce, even union leadership. In 2013, the Central States Pension Fund, with 400,000 members, claimed that it needed to change regulations contained in the 1974 Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) to maintain solvency. ERISA mandated that accrued benefits could never be cut. In 2014, tucked into the “Cromnibus” spending bill were regulations that permitted deep pension cuts to retirees in multi-employer plans.
A group of retired Teamsters, under advisement from the Teamsters for a Democratic Union and the advocacy group Pension Rights Center, created a number of committees across the country to fight back against the 2014 cuts. From there, the National United Committee to Protect Pensions (NUCPP) held rallies and bombarded Congress with calls, emails, and lobbying visits to advocate the restoration of their benefit levels.
The pandemic stopped in-person visits, but it didn’t stop their crusade. In 2020, they volunteered in get out the vote efforts against Donald Trump, who had refused to take action on their issue, and they participated in efforts in Georgia to elect Senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff.
Their efforts paid off. The bill — named after pension activist Butch Lewis, who died early in the campaign — was in the final version of the American Rescue Plan after reassurances from Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) that it would be included.