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Democrats put a spotlight on more than 1 million pensions saved under a 2021 law

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — As the general election nears, Democrats are keen to remind union voters in Pennsylvania that pensions for many workers have been preserved as part of a coronavirus pandemic-era aid package that keeps on giving.

As of Friday, the White House said, more than 1 million union workers and retirees' pensions will have been saved by the Butch Lewis Act, which became law in the spring of 2021.

The law, enacted as part of President Joe Biden's American Rescue Plan, will ultimately stop cuts to the retirement benefits of 2 million workers and retirees across the country.

It is named after a retired Ohio trucker and Teamsters union leader who spent the last years of his life fighting to prevent massive cuts to the Teamsters’ Central States Pension Fund. It set up a special financial assistance program that allows struggling multi-employer pension plans to apply for assistance from the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., a federal agency that protects the retirement incomes of workers in defined benefit pension plans.

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The Butch Lewis Act is designed to ultimately stall the insolvency of roughly 200 multi-employer pension plans for 30 years. Many workers were facing cuts to their benefits of up to 50%, which would have caused massive economic damage to more than 2 million retired and retiring Americans.

Biden administration officials, including senior adviser Gene Sperling, and a group of union workers with the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union were in Hershey, Pennsylvania, with Sen. Bob Casey on Friday to put a spotlight on the law.

Casey, a Democrat, is seeking reelection against Republican Dave McCormick in Pennsylvania’s race for the U.S. Senate. And the Biden administration is paying special attention to swing state Pennsylvania as the president seeks reelection, hoping to turn out union workers at the polls.

“Whether it is Social Security, Medicare, or pensions, workers who earn a dignified retirement through decades of hard work and sacrifice should never see their benefits cut due to broken promises or policies that favor the wealthy over working families," Biden said in a statement.

Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump picked up some blue-collar workers in his 2016 win and this year is looking to exploit a divide between union leaders who have backed Democratic candidates and rank-and-file members who could be swayed to vote Republican.

Rita Lewis, Butch Lewis' widow, told The Associated Press that before the act passed, union retirees she knew “were talking about having to sell their house and live with their kids.”

Lewis, who lives in West Chester, Ohio, and receives a restored income from her late husband's pension, said that she plans to vote for Biden in November because he kept his promise to workers.

“President Biden and the Democrats held true to their word when they said they would restore our pensions,” she said.

In 2016, she led a protest outside the Capitol, calling for the passage of the Butch Lewis Act, saying, “A promise is a promise is a promise."

Many multi-employer pension plans faced funding shortfalls during and after the Great Recession, when plans were left with many more retirees than active workers. Company bankruptcies and withdrawals from plans, as well as investment losses in 2001 and again in 2008 with the stock market collapse, greatly reduced the amount of money in plans, according to the nonprofit Pension Rights Center.

Despite the restoration of some workers' pensions, there are still workers whose retirement benefits were cut during the Great Recession who have not seen their benefits restored.

For instance, an estimated 20,000 workers from Delphi Corp., a subsidiary of General Motors Corp., have spent the past 15 years fighting to get back what they lost after General Motors went through bankruptcy in 2009. The company said it would not assume pension liabilities for the Delphi unit’s salaried workers, unlike its union workers. After taking the issue all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declined to hear their case, the retirees were cut off from their last legal remedy.

They are pushing for passage of the Susan Muffley Act, which would restore their benefits similarly to the Butch Lewis Act. The White House supports that legislation.

Fatima Hussein, The Associated Press