How a retired trucker from Cuyahoga Falls helped score an $86 billion win for union pension plans

Posted at 6:29 PM, Mar 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-24 18:29:54-04

CUYAHOGA FALLS, Ohio — Mike Walden of Cuyahoga Falls retired in 2010 with hopes of spending time with his grandkids not Members of Congress, but when the retired Teamster truck driver saw threats to his union pension, those plans changed.

“They were taking back the anti-cutback provision, they wanted to eliminate that which was a 40-year law at the time that basically said that once you retire your pension couldn't be cut,” said Walden. “After that proposal came out I wanted to get something done immediately and I was with our retiree's club in Akron at the time.”

He started a committee in Summit County with around a dozen others in 2014, a year later their concerns became real in a letter that went out to them and around 400,000 others in their pension fund.

We got letters in October of 2015 “saying that our pensions would be reduced somewhere between 50 and 70% if not more and some a little less and we knew we could not live on that.”

Walden's union was part of a multi-employer pension fund, which is a retirement fund created when different companies pool money into a common fund for unionized workers, teamsters, miners, ironworkers, plumbers to name a few. He also learned that if the fund he paid into his entire career ran out of money, which it was projected to do in 2025, he'd then be covered by a Federal fund.

"We would get a max of about $13,000 a year which was poverty level compared to what we would get,“ he said.

Soon Walden’s single committee in Akron grew to more than 65 nationwide with him leading them all.

"I don't know but I guess I raised my hand once too many times,” he said.

But while it was a matter of protecting his own interests that got him involved it’s what he began to hear around the country that drove him.

"I mean there are some very sad stories out there, what could've happened and the cost this would have been to the economy.”

They would get the attention of Washington with their numbers and the ear of Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) who would introduce the Butch Lewis Act named for an Ohioan who fought with Walden to see this wrong righted but passed away early in the fight with his widow Rita picking up the mantel.

The $86 billion measure to save more than 200 insolvent union pension plans affecting 11 million Americans were included in the American Rescue Act barely surviving by one vote in the Senate an amendment to remove it.

It became a Republican and Democrat issue Walden said and it shouldn’t have.

“We earned that money, we were promised that money but whatever money is given,” he said. “That money goes right back in the economy, especially at this stage. We're too old to save, we can't go back to work, we can't do none of that. We rescued America is how I like to look at it.”

Brown credits the tenacity of Walden and Lewis for not taking no for an answer and getting this passed.

"It's the activism of the grassroots and Mike Walden and Rita Lewis were two of the outstanding national leaders I'm proud they're both from Ohio,” Brown said.

“They made a huge difference and we keep fighting on their behalf and they make it a whole lot easier because they really built a movement."

After nearly a decade it's a movement Walden for his part is ready to pass on to someone else now.

"I have eight years of catching up around here and having fun, I mean I have a lot of hobbies,” Walden said. “Whatever it is I got to do from here I gotta get it done soon because the date on my driver's license doesn't give me a whole lot of time to make up for eight years.”