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Smith meets with Teamsters: Minnesota’s new senator prepares for fight over pensions

Sen. Tina Smith (center) meets with retired Teamsters Saturday morning at the Radisson Hotel in Duluth about the issues they are facing regarding their pensions. (Adelle Whitefoot / awhitefoot@duluthnews.com)

Sen. Tina Smith met with retired Teamsters on Saturday morning to talk about a proposed solution to the problems facing their pensions.

The Teamsters Smith met with are part of Central States Pension Fund, which is on its way to being insolvent as it pays out $3.46 for every one dollar it takes in. There are 21,000 members in Minnesota affected by this, with 3,624 of them in the Eighth District, according to Sherman Liimatainen, vice president of National United Committee to Protect Pensions.

Liimatainen, a Teamster retiree, said the solution they are proposing will work and save many pensions.

“The solution we have is calling for the U.S. Treasury Department to provide a low-interest loan,” he said. “Also, what it does is remove the withdrawal liability for employers.”

The Rehabilitation for Multiemployer Pensions Act would create a new office in the U.S. Treasury Department that would issue bonds to finance loans to distressed pension plans, allow them to remain solvent and continue to provide benefits for retirees and workers. Only interest would be paid back in the first 29 years. In the 30th year, the full amount would be paid back.

Smith said she plans on fighting for this bill and taking what she heard in the meeting back to Washington to help fight for what she believes is right.

“I think I heard some real-world stories about how this debate about pensions isn’t just about percentages and numbers; it’s about people’s lives,” she said.

One of those stories she’s taking back to Washington comes from Vicky Jahr.

“I will tell you that I am an early retiree,” Jahr said. “My husband has Parkinson’s disease, so I thought that we would have some quality time together, never dreaming that a couple of years down the pike, that I wouldn’t have any money.”

Jahr said she has thought about this problem many times, over and over again, and keeps coming back to the same thought: “how the government failed us.”

“They were there to watch over what was happening, and look where we are. How could this happen?” she said. “The way it sits right now, even if we were even able to go back to work, which I have thought about doing, they limit you. I don’t want to be a Walmart greeter.”

Jahr said she was always proud to say she was a Teamster and that she felt secure going into retirement, but that security is gone, and she’s afraid of what will happen next.

“It doesn’t just affect us as individuals; it affects our families and our communities,” she said. “If this isn’t fixed, someone will have to take care of us because I’m not going to wind up sleeping under the bridge.”

Smith is headed back to Washington on Sunday night. She told the Teamsters that she would be fighting for them as soon as she gets there.

“To me, this is a basic matter of economic fairness, and right now in Washington, D.C., over the next couple of weeks, there’s going to be a big debate about how to resolve the latest federal budget impacts,” Smith said. “I wanted to hear about these issue so that they would be brought forward into that budget discussion that will be happening up until Jan. 19 when the next government shutdown is potentially going to be solved. We can fix that and fix this pension issue if we all work together.”

Adelle Whitefoot

Adelle Whitefoot is a Michigan native who moved to Minnesota in Sept. 2014 when she started as a reporter for the Lake County News-Chronicle. She graduated from Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Mich., in 2012 with a bachelor's in English writing and has been a professional photographer since 2011. Whitefoot is the night general assignments reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. 

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