CLEVELAND — Reassuring frustrated blue-collar voters, President Joe Biden on Wednesday visited Ohio iron workers to highlight federal action to shore up troubled pension funding for millions now on the job or retired — and to make his political case that he's been a champion for workers in the White House.
Biden's speech at Max S. Hayes High School in Cleveland showcased a final rule tied to his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package from last year. The rule allows troubled multi-company pensions to be made financially whole, ensuring full benefits for 2 million to 3 million workers and retirees.
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Hurt politically by inflation at a 40-year high and damage wrought by the pandemic, the president chose to deliver his message in a state that has been trending strongly Republican, with Donald Trump easily carrying it twice. In his sixth visit as president, Biden looked to personally reverse that electoral tide, touting the rule to help multi-company pensions as one of the most significant efforts to support union workers' retirement funds in the past 50 years.
"A lot of politicians like to talk about how they're going to do something about it," Biden said. "Well, I'm here today to say we've done something about it."
"We're turning a promise broken, into a promise kept."
The roughly 200 pension plans receiving assistance faced possible insolvency without government aid. And without the 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 roughly 30 years until 2051.
That's important, several retirees said.
Bill DeVito, who introduced Biden, was an iron worker for almost 50 years before retiring a decade ago. When his pension was cut 40% in 2017, he said, "it was devastating."
"The thing of it is, we had a lot of politicians over the years saying, hey, we'll try to help you, we'll do everything we can, and nobody's ever done anything for us until Joe Biden come along," said DeVito, 73. He said that other Ohio Democrats in Washington kept pushing, too.
Jeffrey Carlson, 67, of the Cleveland suburb of North Ridgeville, said that a year before he retired in 2017, he learned his pension would be cut, too.
"I'm grateful for anything that we could get back," he said. "I know I earned it. I worked hard."
Multiemployer plans are created through agreements between companies and a union, and are insured by the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). In 2014, Congress passed the Multiemployer Pension Reform Act that allowed plans, for the first time, to cut workers and retirees' benefits in order to ensure that pensions projected to run out of money remained solvent.
The American Rescue Plan passed in March 2021 included a special finance assistance program that allows struggling multiemployer 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 the pensions' investments to receive a higher rate of return.
The effort to highlight a program to help union workers comes as Democrats hope to pick up a U.S. Senate seat in Ohio, where a strong showing with working class voters could play a pivotal role.
Republican Rob Portman is leaving the Senate after two terms. Vying to replace him are Democratic Rep. Tim Ryan and Republican J.D. Vance, the author of the memoir "Hillbilly Elegy" who secured an endorsement during the primary from Trump. Ohio voters backed Trump in 2016 and 2020, with his margin of victory each time at roughly 8 percentage points.
In a sign of Biden's standing in the state, Ryan didn't appear with him at Wednesday's event, but White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the administration was "in close contact with Congressman Tim Ryan in particular." Biden in his speech noted Ryan's absence and referred to him as the "future" U.S. senator from Ohio.
One veteran Democratic lawmaker who did attend, Ohio Rep. Marcy Kaptur, praised Biden for looking out for American workers' pensions.
"People say, 'Marcy why do you stay in the House?' This is why," Kaptur said. She added, "The former president — the Donald — didn't do anything."
Biden, too, sharply criticized his predecessor, as well as "Trumpers" in Congress who continue to support the former president's agenda. He blamed them for blocking efforts to lower prescription drug prices and tackle surging inflation, and assailed them for proposals to require Congress to reauthorize Medicare and Social Security and raise some low-income Americans' taxes.
"That's why elections have consequences," Biden said, looking ahead to November's midterms. "That's why they matter. And that's why what we're doing here is so important."
While Biden boasts of steady job growth — unemployment sits at 3.6% — Americans have largely been discontented with the Democratic president's handling of the economy as inflation continues to rise, interest rates increase and the stock market wobbles. Just 28 percent approve of Biden's stewardship of the economy, down from 51% a year ago, according to an AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll published last week.
Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, who attended with Biden, made his own pitch that the president has delivered for American workers.
"I just want you to understand that this, the president that we have right now .. .is the most pro worker president in America's history," he declared.
Biden closed his remarks by appealing to working-class voters who helped send him to the White House.
"There's no other place I want to be than right here with the workers in this room and the workers that built America," Biden said. "I see you. I hear you and I'll always have your back."
Josh Boak reported from Washington; AP reporter Julie Carr Smyth contributed from Columbus, Ohio.