Across the country, union pension funds are going bankrupt, leaving thousands of retiring truckers wondering what is to become of their hard-earned benefits. The Pension Rights Center reports that roughly one million Americans are covered by funds on the verge of insolvency, and unions in Cleveland, Illinois, and New York have already been forced to reduce benefits by as much as 70 percent. With numerous other funds on the brink of collapse, union members are scrambling to understand what went wrong, and how to save benefits for as many members as possible.
The causes of the pension crisis are numerous, complex, and interconnected, but they can all be best understood by looking at decisions made in the 1980s which have massively altered the industry today. First, the passage of the Motor Carrier Act of 1980 deregulated the trucking industry, allowing for the proliferation of thousands of small owner-operators, and removing miles of unpopular red tape. However, the MCA also led to a massive drop in union membership, which is partly responsible for today’s hemorrhaging funds. In 1983 (the first year for which data is available) 38 percent of truck drivers were covered by unions; in 2016 it was only 13 percent. While the merits of unionization are endlessly debatable, the data is clear: since deregulation, trucker salaries have declined by nearly a third, the industry is gripped by an ever-worsening driver shortage, and the average age of an American truck driver is now 49. With an aging population and dwindling union membership, it’s not hard to predict the result: hopelessly imbalanced pension funds with older members draining coffers and no young members arriving to refill them.
Serious as it is, declining union membership is only one culprit for the pension crisis; the other is the gross mismanagement of funds by the managers entrusted with them. This problem is best illustrated by the largest fund currently on the brink of collapse, the Central States Pension fund, which covers nearly 400,000 participants, including many truck drivers. In 1982, the Department of Labor ordered that control of the Central States fund be given to Wall Street managers, over allegations that organized crime-affiliated union leaders had illegally borrowed from it. (Many union members don’t dispute the veracity of this charge, but are quick to add that at least the mob paid the money back.) Central State’s new managers invested pension funds in what members assumed were low-risk bonds, but that assumption was shattered by the Great Recession. During the 2008 crash, Central States lost $12 billion (for reference, the fund now claims $16 billion in total assets), which members suspect was the result of illegal investments in risky stocks. Despite this failure to protect their assets, Central States paid pension fund managers $250 million in fees between 2009 and 2013. Adding insult to injury, during this time the financial institutions responsible for the collapse received trillions of dollars in Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) funding, which pension funds were not eligible for. The situation came to a head last year, when fund managers asked Congress for permission to slash benefits in order to save the fund from going completely bankrupt by 2025.
Faced with the prospect of losing up to two-thirds of their benefits, union members fought back and demanded alternate solutions. Washington listened, and refused to grant the fund permission to cut benefits. It was a short-term win for retirees, but the situation still demands long-term solutions. One possible gleam of hope is a Government Accountability Office investigation into the fund managers’ actions, which could result in some financial restitution, or at least a reframing of the popular narrative, voiced by innumerable op-eds, which blames “greedy union members” for wanting to collect the money they were promised.
While it is crucial to determine who is to blame for the pension crisis, the more pressing question is what is to be done. One solution favored by some union members is the Pension Accountability Act, which would allow retirees and workers voting power on any proposed cuts. This bill was originally introduced to Congress in 2015 but died in committee, where it is currently languishing once again.
Whatever solution retiring truckers decide to pursue, it’s vital they band together and demand fair treatment from the institutions designed to protect them. Without unified, decisive action, retirees could lose their homes, medical care, and any hope of financial security. And without a clear understanding of the forces behind this crisis, union members risk being cast as the villains in a story where they are the victims.