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Pension Squeeze Hits Private Sector Unions

As public pension schemes in states like California and Rhode Island continue to collapse, union pension funds in the private sector are also facing massive shortfalls. A new Credit Suisse report finds that managers of multi-employer pension systems have overestimated their plans’ funding at 81 percent; the bank’s calculation, based on new reporting standards, is a more dismal 52 percent. As the FT reports, the overall funding gap now stands at a startling $369 billion.

For years, workers in private sector companies covered by collective bargaining agreements have thought that their pensions were secure. They aren’t, if these new studies can be trusted.

This could deal a serious blow to a private sector labor movement that is already fighting for its life. Private sector unions derive their support from their ability to promise members better wages, benefits and working conditions in return for their union dues. At their peak, private-sector union members represented more than a third of American workers; today’s numbers are down to a meager 6.9 percent (see the chart below, h/t AEI’s The American). If workers lose confidence in their unions’ ability to deliver on pension promises, it’s hard to see why that number couldn’t fall even more.

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  • Andrea Ostrov Letania

    Why are there pensions plans where there’s social security?

    • Walter Russell Mead

      @Andres: Social Security was never intended to provide a full retirement income.

  • alex scipio

    Unions are, of course, as relic of the Industrial Age. The workers have figured that out, and moved on to jobs that are not unikonixed, or simply opted-out of unions when given the opportunity in states in which workers are treated as adults able to make their own decisions about representation. Now those unions still extant are broke. When an organism chooses a path that ultimately dooms that organism, I think it is called self-inflicted suicide. Unions have been committing suicide for decades; their “leaders” have become fat cats at the expense of their workers’ (usually mandatory) dues. Natural selection works in the workplace, in organisms, in states and countries. And the Blue model is being selected OUT.


  • Jordan

    Perhaps someone can explain to me why people believe some promise of payment in the distant future by a company that may no longer exist is considered secure, whereas money in a private account is considered risky. Why is the latter so vilified?

  • Charles R. Williams

    It has long been clear that multi-employer union-controlled pension plans were an iffy proposition. But this is not a question of how the liabilities are calculated (as in state and local pension plans) but rather the fundamental structure of these plans. In essence, when one employer goes out of business the liabilities get shifted to the rest leading to a snowballing problem. Typically these plans can be found in industries with low barriers to entry and exit. The taxpayer will end up holding the bag because these plans were politically untouchable.

  • Kenny

    “The taxpayer will end up holding the bag because these plans were politically untouchable.”

    Don’t bet on that. For the public to get stuck with this odious bag, it would require a Democrat House & Senate and Dem presidency, and that’s not in the cards.

  • Bruno Behrend

    This bolsters my argument that Public Sector Unions have helped destroy private sector unionization.

    The bluest states have seen the fastest jobs losses, as both companies and individuals either move, or spend less on employment.

    The next time a private union members talks about “solidarity” with their greedy public counterpart, ask them how chasing building, electrical, plumbing, and factory jobs out of a state is working out for them.

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