Strickland Criticizes Unions’ Decision to Endorse Portman in Ohio

The Wall Street Journal | July 28, 2016

By: Sioban Hughes

PHILADELPHIA – Democrat Ted Strickland, the former Ohio governor who is challenging Republican Sen. Rob Portman, lashed out Thursday at the unions that are formally backing the sitting senator, saying that the endorsements were cooked up in order to win favor with a politician who could help their troubled pension plans.

The United Mine Workers of America last month endorsed Mr. Portman. This week, the Ohio Conference of Teamsters also issued an endorsement. The moves were unusual because labor unions typically back Democrats, and Mr. Strickland has strong ties to labor groups in his state.

The degree to which the endorsements are connected to the pension issue is unclear, but both union pensions are in bad shape and could benefit from legislation that the Ohio senator is backing. The Teamsters cited Mr. Portman’s work on pensions among the factors behind its endorsement. The mine workers cited his efforts to protect coal jobs.

“This is just a matter of Washington inside considerations–it has very little to do with anything that is going to happen in this election in Ohio,” Mr. Strickland told reporters after speaking to delegates attending this week’s Democratic convention.

The United Mine Workers of America 1974 pension plan is underfunded by about $2 billion, the union said last year. Mr. Portman is backing legislation that would shore up the pension by transferring in money from a government fund to clean up abandoned mines. The measure is due to get a vote in the Senate Finance Committee, on which Mr. Portman sits, in September.

The Ohio Teamsters, contacted through the Teamsters umbrella organization, didn’t return a call seeking comment. A spokesman for the United Mine Workers declined to comment.

Corry Bliss, Mr. Portman’s campaign manager, said that the two unions compared each candidate’s records and concluded that “for Ohio families, the only candidate that has their back is Rob Portman.”

But Mr. Strickland said the unions’ decision to back Mr. Portman “was made in Washington, D.C.–it wasn’t made in southern Ohio. I can assure you of that.”

“He’s in a position–if he were to choose–to actually inflict damage on the coal miners because he has some influence over their pensions,” Mr. Strickland said. “The coal miners in Ohio are going to be voting for me.”

The Teamsters’ $16.8 billion Central States Pension Fund represents more than 400,00 workers at 1,500 companies and will run out of cash by the end of 2025 absent a congressional bailout, Thomas Nyhan, the group’s executive director, said in May.

Such multiemployer plans are jointly administered by unions and employers and funded by multiple employers in a given industry, typically in fields such as trucking, retail and construction. The failure of just a few larger plans like the Central States fund quickly would bankrupt the federal safety net. In 2014, Congress passed a bill to permit trustees of multiemployer pension plans to cut retiree benefits.

Mr. Portman is also offering separate legislation that would make such cuts harder by giving workers and retirees more say in whether to enact such reductions. His bill that would give workers and retirees a binding vote on whether cuts should go into effect. His measure would also count in the vote tally only ballots that are returned. Currently, workers and retiree have non-binding votes under a system in which ballots that aren’t returned are counted in favor of cuts.