Donald Trump ran for president as a self-proclaimed
champion of working-class people — a self-image he has
maintained mostly by taking credit for saving U.S. jobs
he had little to no part in saving.
Yet Trump has ignored a potential disaster for
America's blue-collar workers much larger than the loss
of a few thousand jobs: a growing crisis for major
pension funds that threatens to dramatically cut the
retirement savings of hundreds of thousands of
unionized workers, many of whom have already begun
Fixing that system ought to be a natural priority for
Trump, not only because policy solutions already exist
that will help save American workers' nest eggs, but
also because doing so would help secure Donald Trump's
own union pension.
Yes, you read that right: Donald Trump has union
Among the many remarkable discoveries found in Trump's
limited financial disclosures to date is the fact that
the self-proclaimed billionaire real-estate mogul was,
as recently as 2015, still collecting a $168,000
pension — and maybe more — from the Screen Actors Guild
for playing himself in The Apprentice. A spokesperson
for the Trump transition team did not immediately
respond to Mic's inquiry about whether Trump still
received his SAG pension in 2016.
Now that Trump is about to be president, the most
important question is: What is Trump's plan to save the
system that is designed to protect millions of union
pensions like his own?
Collectively bargained pension plans pay out
a certain amount of money every year regardless of
market conditions. Yet, over the past few years, a
number of large collectively bargained pension funds —
known in the industry as "multiemployer plans" — have
faced serious financial trouble due in part to
declining unionization, job losses in unionized
industries and the lasting effects of the Great
Not all the large pension funds are unstable — the
SAG-AFTRA fund that pays Trump has been in good shape
for the past six years — but millions of workers'
retirements are at risk as many pensions and the
systems that back them up are in grave shape.
In 2014, Congress responded to the financial distress
in the unstable plans by passing the controversial
Multiemployer Pension Reform Act (MPRA), which allowed
multiemployer pension plans — with the approval of the
U.S. Treasury Department — to cut benefits to current
retirees. Prior to the passage of MPRA, pension funds
could make changes to cut benefits to future retirees
but couldn't cut benefits for those who were already in
retirement. In other words, for the first time ever,
Congress allowed pension funds to cut the monthly
payments they make to people who are already in
retirement and relying on such payments to get by.
The U.S. Treasury approved the first of these plans in
December, cutting benefits to hundreds of retired
ironworkers who were members of the Iron Workers Local
17 in Cleveland. Karen Friedman, executive vice
president of the Pension Rights Center, has already
beseeched Donald Trump to help save the ironworkers'
pensions in an op-ed for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
The picture is more bleak for other workers. In May,
the U.S. Treasury rejected a proposal to cut the
benefits for plans in the Central States Pension Fund —
which covers more than 400,000 workers across the U.S.,
most of whom are truck drivers — because the cuts would
not make the fund solvent. "At this time, only
government funding will prevent Central States
participants from losing their benefits entirely," the
director of the fund wrote in a May letter to
Central States isn't the only troubled, large pension
fund that the MPRA is ill-suited to rescue.
"The large plans have deteriorated enough that you
can't cut benefits enough to save the plan," Michael
Kreps, former senior counsel to the Senate Committee on
Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, said in an
Normally when a plan becomes insolvent, pensioners can
recoup some of their lost nest egg through a
government-created insurance program called the Pension
Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC). But that
insurance covers just a fraction of the amount paid out
by the original plan. What's more, the PBGC is
currently facing its own crisis: Absent some action
from Congress, the PBGC's insurance fund for
multiemployer pensions is projected to be insolvent
within the next 10 years, meaning little to no help for
pensioners in failing plans.
There are solutions to this crisis that a Trump
administration could pursue if they are serious about
helping workers and retirees. A bill sponsored by
former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders called the
Keep Our Promises Act would help save multiemployer
pension plans without making cuts to current benefits
by providing federal funds to the PBGC and giving it
new authority to help struggling plans.
The Republican Congress is unlikely to pursue
progressive legislation like the Keep Our Promises Act,
but Trump, who has been more than willing to use his
bully pulpit, could pressure them. Plus, helping secure
the multiemployer pension system means doing something
Trump has been more than willing to do: look out for
his own interests.