More than 300 current and former Teamsters union members who face reductions in their monthly pensions crowded into the community room at Holy Family Catholic Church in Duluth to fight back against the cuts.
The retirees are among 1,500 in the Twin Ports, tens of thousands across Minnesota and Wisconsin and more than 400,000 across 38 states who received letters in October notifying them that their pension fund is in trouble and that their checks will be reduced - in some cases up to 60 percent.
Trustees of the Chicago-based Central States Pension Fund say the cuts are needed to keep some money flowing to all retirees. With the majority of trucking companies now nonunion and fewer active union members left to pay into the pension fund, Central States officials say the fund will be insolvent by 2027.
But opponents to the cuts counter that the pension fund was well-stocked with money out of union members' pockets yet was mismanaged by trustees, poorly invested by Wall Street financiers and ignored by federal regulators who should have been guarding the money.
"What we need to do is cut the head off the snake," said retiree Frank Hanson of Hermantown, who wants pension fund trustees held accountable.
Hanson, 77, a member of Teamsters Local No. 346 before retiring in 2001 who worked more than 30 years driving trucks for Ready Mix Concrete, said the pension cut will be hard to swallow. Hanson's former employer, like hundreds of other companies, paid into the Central States fund as part of their employees' compensation.
"It's going to affect my life big-time if this happens. Social Security doesn't pay the bills on its own," he said. "The pension is how I get by."
Sally Solots of Duluth said she gets only $230.97 of her husband Arthur's Central States pension. Arthur, who drove truck for 30 years for Century Motor Freight, died on the job in 1991. Sally was supposed to get $1,000 per month, half his pension, but that was quickly cut, she said.
"If they cut it again. I don't know what I'll do," she said. "It's terrible. I can't believe they can do this to me."
The proposed cuts are greater for retirees under age 70, and no cuts are proposed for those now over age 80. Many UPS retirees won't see any cuts because the company bought out of the Central States plans years ago, predicting problems.
Retirees at Thursday's meeting signed petitions calling for Central States Pension Fund trustees to resign, and they vowed to vote "no" if the cuts are put for a vote in July as planned.
They also backed a proposal by organizers calling for a Congressional investigation into why the U.S. Treasury Department, U.S. Labor Department and the Internal Revenue Service - all of which have been overseeing the fund for more than 30 years - allowed the situation to deteriorate.
A similar show of opposition is planned for Monday at Coffman Union in Minneapolis when 500 retirees and union members are expected at a meeting called by the "special master" appointed by the Treasury Department to oversee the pension cut proposal and prospective vote by union members, retired and active.
Retiree activists are organizing across all 38 states, supporters said.
"We've got something going here that's solid. We've got a good coalition" to battle against the cuts, said Sherman Liimatainen of Cloquet, a former officer in Local 346. Liimatainen has been among the leaders trying to decipher what went wrong with the pension, who was responsible and what options retirees have.
"We need an investigation and an explanation of what went wrong," he said. "And we need to let people know there are other options. ... It's a myth that this (cutting pensions) is the only way out of the problem."
The Teamsters Central States Pension Fund has been mired in controversy for decades, going back as far as infamous former Teamsters chief Jimmy Hoffa who disappeared without a trace in 1975, believed to be the victim of mob violence. After allegations of wrongdoing and shady investments, federal regulators in 1982 stepped in to oversee a newly appointed board of trustees.
But the fund's investments - which critics now say we're overly risky and possibly illegal - were hard-hit by the 2008 stock market crash that triggered the Great Recession. The fund lost more than 30 percent of its assets and regulators say Central States is now paying out $3.46 in benefits for every $1 it takes in, paying $2 billion a year more than it receives.
Opponents to the cut note that the fund has some $17.8 billion in assets and could pay out full benefits for another decade or so. That's more than enough time to find a more equitable solution than pension cuts, said U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Crosby, who spoke at Thursday's meeting.
Nolan said Teamsters accepted less money in their paychecks every week they worked in exchange for the promise of a pension when they retired. He vowed to stop the cut and then work to bolster the pension fund to pay in full.
"This is no entitlement. This is no gift," Nolan said, saying the money was part of the hard-earned wages of truck drivers. "To ask people in their 60s and 70s and 80s for you to take half of what you put in ... is shameless. It's un-American."
Nolan voted "no" in December 2014 when Congress quietly passed legislation - called the Kline-Miller Multiemployer Pension Reform Act that was amended onto a larger budget bill signed by the president - that allows the cuts to occur without intervention by the federal Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, which itself is in dire straights.
With the law in place enabling the cuts, Chicago-based Central States first mailed letters to 403,000 members in 38 states in October notifying each how much their checks would be reduced.
The process is being overseen by the Treasury Department which appointed Kenneth R. Feinberg special master to marshal the process as outlined by the legislation. Participants and retirees also will get the chance to vote on the rescue plan. The Treasury Department has until May 6 to approve or deny the pension changes and, if approved, 30 days to administer a vote on the proposed benefit reductions.
Nolan is among several lawmakers opposing the cuts who have introduced the Keep Our Pension Promises Act, H.R. 2844. The measure would repeal the provision in the 2014 budget deal. It would instead shore up the federally funded but beleaguered Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. by closing two tax loopholes used almost entirely by wealthy estates to reduce their tax burdens, according to a news release from Nolan.
"I'm cautiously optimistic that this can be fixed," Nolan said of the pension problem.
Supporters say the bill would protect the pensions, not just of Teamsters under the Central States plan, but also some 1.5 million workers in about 200 different multi-employer pension plans that are underfunded.