Teamsters protesting pension cuts in Washington D.C. Members of the International Brotherhood ofTeamsters and their supporters attend a rally in 2016. TheirCentral States Pension Fund, of which Mike Walden is a participant,and upwards of 130 other multiemployer plans, will go insolvent,some within a matter of a few years. (Photo: Bloomberg)

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Eleven months into a scheduled 13-month deployment, the Marinesin Mike Walden's unit began carrying a deck of cards in the field.They were 52 days out from going home; for each day that passed, acard was pulled from the deck, memorializing the end that was insight.

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By the end of the card deck, Walden, a .50-caliber machinegunner, and his unit weren't going anywhere.

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"When you get down to your last card and you're still there, youget a little nervous," recalls the Akron, Ohio native, who passedon a wrestling scholarship to enlist in the Marine Corps after highschool.

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"It was a war zone," he says unceremoniously. "We couldn't getout."

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Walden's arrival in Vietnam synced with the North Vietnamese TETOffensive, the months-long siege on South Vietnam that began in1968 and marked some of the bloodiest fighting of the war.

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He doesn't describe himself as what he clearly is—a patriot.Instead, Walden says he and a few classmates made a calculateddecision to enlist. "It was the height of the war. We decided, 'Whydon't we just sign up before we get drafted. If we live, we cancome back and decide our future then'."

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Walden returned after 15 months in Vietnam. He lingered for abit in the Marine Corps stateside. He was made a "brig chaser" —prison guard — and later staged mock beach landings off the USSNewport News.

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Eventually he left the Marine Corps and returned to Akron to goto college. He started his own transportation company, then wasoffered an office position with Roadway Express.

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He opted for a position driving. Walden joined the Teamsters, and spent the next 31 years as aline haul driver. "It was a good paycheck," he saysmatter-of-factly.

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The health benefits were solid. So was the promise of a secureretirement.

Tip of the spear

These days, Walden, a grandfather of nine who is staring downhis septuagenarian years, is again at the tip of the spear. Thistime the battle has no bullets, but Walden, along with thousands ofother pensioners, spends most of his waking hours warning anyonewho will listen of its life and death implications.

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Related: Only cash infusion can save CentralStates. other multiemployer plans facinginsolvency

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In the retirement industry, the plight of more than10 million pensioners in collectively bargained retirementplans is known, if not well known.

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Without intervention from the federal government and taxpayers,the Central States Pension Fund, of which Walden isa participant, and upwards of 130 other multiemployer plans, willgo insolvent, some within a matter of a few years.

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When the dominoes start to fall, so too will the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.,the federal agency charged with insuring single and multiemployerplans when they fail.

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Geoff Manville, a principal on the government relations team atMercer, is as dialed in as they come on retirement issues onCapitol Hill. The multiemployer pension crisis is "the elephant inthe room," says Manville.

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"It's the biggest issue facing Congress," he says—referring not just to retirement policy, but all issues.

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Awareness of the elephant has come a long way in a short time,and now extends beyond the lawmakers on the committees andsubcommittees with jurisdiction over retirement policy. Thatattention is due to the grassroots efforts of Walden and thousandsof retired union workers.

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"Mike is a force of nature," said Karen Friedman, executive vicepresident and policy director of the Pension Rights Center. "He's aleader. But he recognizes he's just one of thousands of peoplethroughout this movement. These guys went from being retired truckdrivers, and miners, and iron workers to being among the mosteffective, sophisticated advocates we've ever seen on CapitolHill."

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In a sense Walden is a reluctant leader. He stayed active in theTeamsters after retiring in 2011, and became a trustee ofthe Local 24 Retirees Club.  Then in 2013, a policy paper,"Solutions Not Bailouts," emerged from the National CoordinatingCommittee for Multiemployer Plans.

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In order to secure the future solvency of pensions and continuedemployer participation in collectively bargained plans, the papercalled for cuts to existing benefits that would leave retirees andparticipants with less than what they were scheduled to get, butmore than they would receive under PBGC's insurance.

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"We received word they wanted to reduce our benefits and takeaway the anti-clawback provision," said Walden. "There were somegood things in the paper, but those two provisions scared me."

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Walden said he took the issue to other trustees at Local 24. "Isaid we need to get on defense now." His sense of urgency wasn'tshared.

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Over the next several months, Walden started voicing hisconcerns with other Teamsters, pension attorneys, and even traveledto Capitol Hill for an early hearing on the crisis.

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His call for action met a fickle response, but in 2014, after ameeting with the Teamsters For A Democratic Union (TDU), a12-member committee was created with the objective of pushing backon the prospect of pension cuts.

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At its first meeting, the Northeast Ohio Committee to Protect Pensionswas officially created. Walden agreed to become its president whenno one else would. "I got stuck with that," he says.

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From there he "went to school," spending his days and nightsstudying the legislative process, federal budgets, and themacroeconomic implications of thousands of retirees losing theirpensions.

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One of his main objectives was advocating for the PensionProtection Act of 2006, which was scheduled to sunset. Then, at theend of 2014, Congress passed and President Obama signed into law abudget that included the Multiemployer Pension Reform Act, whichgave the Treasury Department authority to rubberstamp benefitclawbacks in critical and declining pensions.

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"They threw us under the bus, to pass something so ridiculous inthe middle of the night with no input from retirees," said Walden."The first thing that came to my mind was, what was I fighting forin Vietnam?"

Gathering force

If there was a good thing about MPRA from the perspective of aretired union worker, it was that it had the effect of focusingenergy.

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Walden had already been canvassing local union leaders inPennsylvania, Missouri, and the upper Midwest to sound the alarm.After MPRA those efforts were redoubled. At a meeting in 2015 inSt. Louis, Walden was named president of the National United Committeeto Protect Pensions, which was comprised of local and regionalindependent committees around the country.

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"We moved forward quickly from there," said Walden. "Ourrecognition was almost automatic in Washington. We won credibilitybecause we stayed politically neutral—we don't have aisles. Justbecause we're union doesn't mean we're all Democrats."

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By October of 2015, the Central States Pension Fund had appliedto the Treasury Department to cut benefits under MPRA. The proposalincluded cuts up to 70 percent in the most extreme cases.

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"We just couldn't live on what they were proposing," saidWalden. As part of the application process, Treasury held fieldmeetings open to the public. More than 300 Teamsters showed up tothe first hearing. "That may have been the best move we made,"added Walden.

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Did the human faces sway Treasury's consideration of CentralStates' application? Those who know will probably never say.Treasury made no acknowledgement of the pensioners' role at thehearings or their lobbying on Capitol Hill when it denied Central States' application on thegrounds that it was actuarially unsound.

The rescue that almost passed

NUCCP continued to grow, ultimately to 64 regional Committees toProtect Pensions. The movement aligned with the InternationalBrotherhood of Teamsters as well as miners and ironworkerunions.

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By 2016 both chambers of Congress were giving the multiemployerpension crisis concerted attention in committee hearings. Ralliesstaged by the coalition of pensioners would take place outside thehalls of Congress on those days, often numbering in thethousands.

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"When we started lobbying together in Washington, we didn't havea clue what we were doing, but we learned quickly," says Walden."We were making so many suggestions, offering so many solutions atthe time—some looked at us like we were crazy. Anything was betterthan losing our pensions."

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The pensioners became close with key lawmakers, Republicans andDemocrats, on retirement committees. "We made some very goodfriends on both sides of the aisle," said Walden.

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Meantime, competing proposals to rescue the pensions emerged.One, backed by UPS, the biggest employer in the Central StatesPlan, called for more modest pension cuts than previous proposals.It originally had the support of the Central States Plantrustees.

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Another plan emerged from the International Brotherhood ofTeamsters. That more aggressive plan was designed to keep allpensions whole. Unions across the country debated the merits ofeach. Ultimately, IBT turned its proposal over to Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-OH, and Rep. Richard Neal,D-MA — two lawmakers who had the juice to move legislation. Andthey did. In 2017, The Butch Lewis Act was introduced in theSenate.

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The bill proposes saving pensions facing insolvency, as well asthe PBGC, by raising cash through Treasury notes sold toinstitutional investors. The proceeds would be used to channellow-interest-rate loans to pensions over a 30-year period.

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According to Walden, the bill, named after a Teamster anddecorated Vietnam veteran who died shortly after he retired, cameclose to being attached to the budget bill at the end of 2017.

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"It was thought that if Butch Lewis were attached to thespending bill in 2017, it would pass," explained Walden. "Behindthe scenes, Republicans were saying 'we won't sponsor this, butwe'll vote for it'."

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But in the eleventh hour, Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-KY, the Senatemajority leader, refused to add Butch Lewis to the spendingpackage, according to Walden's account.

Joint Select Committee not expected to produce a solution

Two weeks from now, a Joint Select Committee comprised of eightRepublicans and eight Democrats is scheduled to release a report onthe multiemployer pension crisis, and if a majority on thecommittee can agree to it, legislation that would rescue the plansand the PBGC.

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A preliminary score of Butch Lewis from the Congressional BudgetOffice put the cost of the bill at $100 billion. A later amendedscore reduced it to $36 billion.

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Therein lies the rub. Rep. Phil Roe, R-TN, a member of theSelect Committee, has voiced concerns that the pensions wouldstruggle to repay the loans. Others have raised fears that even ifthe loans were repaid, the bill fails to make necessary reforms tothe multiemployer pension system that are needed to prevent afuture crisis.

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Walden says Butch Lewis has "zero" chance of passing out of theJoint Select Committee.

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"I don't see Republicans moving on anything," said Walden, whonoted his appreciation for the work of Republican Senators OrrinHatch and Rob Portman, both members of the Joint Select Committee,on the issue.

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"When I talk to members of Congress, I ask them to travel aroundthe country and listen to these people. We've never asked for abailout from the taxpayer — we're taxpayers too. We're just askingfor a solution," says Walden.

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Asked what would happen to him if the Central States plan wereallowed to fail, Walden points to the experience of the Local 707Teamsters in upstate New York.

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In 2017, Local 707's proposal to reduce benefits was accepted bythe Treasury Department, despite members voting the proposal downby a 2-to-1 margin. About 10,000 votes of 34,000 eligible voterswere cast. Under MPRA, votes that are not cast are counted as yesvotes.

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Retired Teamsters in the plan saw their pensions cut up to 70percent.

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"In some cases they're choosing between food and medicine," saysWalden. "They're suffering."

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Nick Thornton

Nick Thornton is a financial writer covering retirement and health care issues for BenefitsPRO and ALM Media. He greatly enjoys learning from the vast minds in the legal, academic, advisory and money management communities when covering the retirement space. He's also written on international marketing trends, financial institution risk management, defense and energy issues, the restaurant industry in New York City, surfing, cigars, rum, travel, and fishing. When not writing, he's pushing into some land or water.