CLEVELAND — As President Joe Biden took the stage Wednesday inside Cleveland’s Max Hayes High School he did so to take a victory lap for his role in helping to secure $86 billion to save the pensions of 11 million union workers in the country through the American Rescue Act.
“Today I’m keeping the promise of one of the most significant achievements union workers and retirees have received in over 50 years and that’s not hyperbole,” the president said.
Biden may have been the one in the spotlight, but not far away in the front row was one of the main people who played a role in putting him in that position—a retiree who wouldn’t take no for an answer.
When Mike Walden of Cuyahoga Fallas retired as a truck driver in 2010 it was to spend more time with his family, 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,” Walden told News 5 after the act was signed into law. “After that proposal came out I wanted to get something done immediately and I was with our retirees' 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 percent if not more and some a little less and we knew we could not live on that,” he said.
Mike'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 and plumbers to name a few. Mike 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 Mike’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 one too many times,” he joked. 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,” he said.
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 the man who fought with Walden to see this wrong righted but passed away early in the fight with his widow Rita picking up the mantel. She was singled out by the president Wednesday for her tireless efforts to see this through.
Brown was among those on hand, tipping his cap to Walden and Rita Lewis. “This has been ten years in the making and at the beginning nobody paid attention, nobody understood it and they walked the halls of Congress, they came to events all over Ohio,” he said. “It happened in other states but nowhere like Rita and Mike did in Ohio, we’ve finally got it to happen.”
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.”