Should the Government Bail Out Union Pension Funds?

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Fox Business has made something of a splash claiming that Senator Casey has introduced a bill to bail out union pensions that will cost $165 billion.  Media Matters lashes back, arguing that the bill will only cost $8-10 billion and isn't a bailout.  Who's right?

As so often with these things, the truth is somewhere in between.

The bill in question will essentially let multi-employer union pension plans, like the Teamster's plan that is currently causing UPS so much trouble, segregate out the workers of defunct companies and get the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp to pony up for their benefits.  Media Matters says that the bailout won't cost $165 billion, and they're right;  that's the total liabilities of the plan.  Theoretically, it could cost $165 billion if every single employer went bankrupt, but that's not a very likely scenario.

However, Media Matters also says it's not a bailout, which is silly.  When you give someone money because they've gotten their finances into an untenable state, that's a bailout. $8-10 billion is double the current level of underfunding in the PBGC, and that's just the undoubtedly rosy number cited by Senator Casey.  If the funding levels of the MEPs get worse (as is possible, even likely) it will cost more. 

More to the point, the multi-employer plans have not paid any premiums for the benefits Senator Casey now wants to give them.  The PBGC provides insurance (for which it does not charge adequate premiums, but that is another rant.)  It is not a charitable institution.

The whole point of a multi-employer plan is to pool the risk, and ensure that workers do not lose benefits merely because they have transferred around.  It is true that there are now big shortfalls in these plans, and the bankrupt employers are (definitionally) not around to help the going concerns make up their losses.  That makes it difficult to convince firms that they should, say, employ teamsters. 

But while there's a certain amount of unfairness to this, I don't see why it's more fair to get the taxpayers to suck up the bill.  The employers knew what they were getting into.  So did the unions.  The PBGC exists to shelter workers from total destitution in the event that their pension fund does not have resources to meet its obligations, and there is no going concern behind the fund able to make up the shortfall.  It does not exist to make UPS more profitable, or more competitive with UPS FedEx.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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