By JOSH BOAK Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — Seeking to improve his position among frustrated blue-collar voters, President Joe Biden will use the backdrop of a Cleveland union training center Wednesday to tell workers that his policies will shore up troubled pension funds for millions who now they are at work. or retired.
Politically hamstrung by inflation at a 40-year high and damage from the pandemic, the president is anchoring his message to workers in Ohio’s long-standing electoral landmark. The Buckeye state has been leaning heavily Republican with Donald Trump carrying it easily twice, and this is Biden’s fourth visit as president as he works to personally reverse that electoral tide.
Biden’s speech at the Ironworkers Local 17 Training Center is timed for the announcement of a final administrative rule that is tied to his $1.9 billion coronavirus relief package from last year. The rule allows troubled multi-company pensions to be financially integrated, ensuring full benefits for 2 million to 3 million workers and retirees.
Details about Biden’s comments were shared by two administration officials who insisted on anonymity to preview his speech.
The approximately 200 pension plans that received assistance faced possible insolvency without government help. Without full benefits, workers and retirees could struggle to pay for housing, food and other essentials. The financial support should help keep the pension funds solvent for about 30 years until 2051.
That’s important, several retirees said.
Bill DeVito, 73, was an ironworker for nearly 50 years before retiring a decade ago. When his pension was cut by 40% in 2017, he said, “it was devastating.”
“The thing is, we’ve had a lot of politicians over the years saying, hey, we’re going to try to help you, we’re going to do everything we can, and no one has done anything for us until Joe Biden came along.” He said other Ohio Democrats in Washington also continued to push.
Jeffrey Carlson, 67, of the Cleveland suburb of North Ridgeville, said a year before he retired in 2017, he learned his pension would also be reduced.
“I’m grateful for anything we can get back,” he said. “I know I earned it. I worked hard.”
Carlson, a longtime Democrat, said he knows public opinion has turned against Biden, but he still supports the president.
“I think he’s doing what he has to do and trying to make the most of it, and I think he’s taking care, as a whole, taking care of our side, the worker.”
Multi-employer plans are created through agreements between companies and a union, and are insured by the Federal Pension Benefits Guarantee Corporation (PBGC). In 2014, Congress passed the Multi-Employer Pension Reform Act that allowed plans, for the first time, to cut benefits for workers and retirees to ensure that pensions projected to run out of money remained solvent.
The American Rescue Plan approved in March 2021 included a special financial assistance program that allows struggling multi-employer pension plans to apply to the PBGC for assistance. The final rule being unveiled by the Biden administration is designed to make it easier for pension investments to receive a higher rate of return.
The effort to highlight a program to boost unionized workers comes as Democrats hope to win a U.S. Senate seat in Ohio, where strong working-class voter turnout could play a critical role.
Republican Rob Portman will leave the Senate after two terms. Running to replace him are Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan and Republican JD Vance, the author of the “Hillbilly Elegy” memoir who garnered Trump’s endorsement during the primary. Ohio voters backed Trump in 2016 and 2020, with a margin of victory each time of about eight percentage points.
While Biden boasts of steady job growth (unemployment stands at 3.6%), Americans have been largely unhappy with the Democratic president’s handling of the economy as inflation continues rising, interest rates rise and the stock market falters. Just 28 percent approve of Biden’s stewardship of the economy, down from 51 percent a year ago, according to a poll by the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research released last week.
Biden has made extensive commitments to boost Ohio’s economy. But his efforts suffered a recent setback when Intel postponed the July 22 opening of a computer chip plant near the state capital of Columbus. The decision came after a planned investment of more than $50 billion in the semiconductor industry stalled in Congress.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said on Twitter last week that he would block the computer chip bill if congressional Democrats pursue passage of its budget and domestic agenda as planned in the face of Republican opposition.
Biden has highlighted the planned computer chip plant as a commitment to American manufacturing, part of the message he hopes to emphasize by helping plant workers’ pensions.
His efforts to fund struggling pensions would extend the solvency of the government’s PBGC multiemployer insurance program from 2026 to 2055. Full benefits would be restored to 80,000 workers and retirees who had benefits cut.
Biden has often emphasized his administration’s efforts to support union members, who are an important part of his political identity. The president likes to proclaim that the middle class built America and that “unions built the middle class.” In an April speech to unionized workers in Washington, he offered his support for Amazon employees on Staten Island, New York, who had voted to form a union by declaring, “By the way, Amazon, here we come. Clock.”
In May, during an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Conference, Biden derided Trump as “the great MAGA king,” poking fun at the former president’s “Make America Great” campaign slogan that has resonated with many blue-collar voters in the industrial midwest. .
He is repeatedly hitting an economic issue against Republicans heading into the November midterm elections, saying the GOP, for all its criticism of it, has few tangible solutions to major policy problems facing the country, including rising inflation.
AP reporter Julie Carr Smyth contributed from Columbus, Ohio.
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