WASHINGTON ― Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) devoted a significant chunk of his speech at a union conference Wednesday to talking about defined-benefit pension plans. Most voters reflexively check their phones when such an unsexy subject comes up, but Sanders knew exactly who his audience was.
“A promise made must be a promise kept,” the presidential hopeful said in a riff that drew cheers from members of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers. “If I’m elected president, my administration will impose an immediate moratorium on any future pension cuts to multiemployer pension plans.”
Sanders was talking about a specific type of pension plan that covers more than one company and that is run jointly by representatives of those employers and the labor union their workers have in common. Often found in construction and service sectors, many multiemployer plans have run into serious trouble in recent years, particularly in industries that are declining (coal) or being de-unionized (trucking). Retirees face the possibility of steep cuts to their benefits due to funding shortfalls.
Some of those pensions have already been slashed. A law passed in 2014 allowed the trustees of troubled multiemployer plans to reduce benefits after receiving approval from the Treasury Department. The aim was to shore up not only the plans themselves but also the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, the government-run entity that insures pension plans and is on track to become insolvent in just a few years.
“A promise made must be a promise kept.”
Sanders opposed that law, saying the sacrifices needed to bolster plans shouldn’t fall to retirees. He reiterated that view on Wednesday, noting that pensions are essentially deferred compensation and that workers gave up wage increases over the years in order to steer money toward retirement. “A company cannot renege on that promise,” Sanders told the union crowd.
What he did not say explicitly is that one of his top Democratic primary opponents, former Vice President Joe Biden, had an indirect hand in giving plan trustees the ability to cut benefits. The Multiemployer Pension Reform Act got rolled into an omnibus spending bill that the Obama administration approved. Other Democrats opposed the reform at the time, saying it would lead to unfair cuts for retirees.
The closest Sanders came to calling out Biden on Wednesday was noting that the change was made “five years ago.” But the Vermont senator may be less reserved in his comments in the coming months, especially if he continues to poll second behind Biden, the early front-runner in the Democratic race. The pension issue could be one of many ways the self-described democratic socialist distinguishes himself from the centrist Biden.
The former vice president officially jumped into the race only two weeks ago but has already made a big play for union support. He came out of the gates with an endorsement from the International Association of Fire Fighters and gave his first campaign speech at a Teamsters union hall in Pittsburgh. The Intercept noted the irony of the setting, given the Obama-era law: One of the pension cuts that was approved by Treasury involves a Teamsters multiemployer plan for workers in western Pennsylvania.
In his speech Wednesday, Sanders acknowledged that not everyone finds the subject of pensions terribly exciting, but he made clear that he intends to keep talking about it.
“This is a huge issue that doesn’t get anywhere near the attention it deserves,” he said.