Union members outside the Illinois State Capitol in Springfield in 2012. (Seth Perlman/AP)
Columnist

The post-election moment, when victorious candidates wax grandiloquent reaching across the aisle to accomplish important things for the American people, is as evanescent as a rainbow. Before it vanishes this time — before the 2020 wannabes are in full cry and subpoenas begin flying — here’s an urgent problem our fractured Congress can address, if both sides will swallow a little pain for the shared gain of more than 1 million hard-working Americans.

Over their careers as factory workers, truck drivers, seamstresses and so on, these men and women often accepted retirement benefits instead of higher wages. In fact, Congress often dictated these trade-offs. During World War II, when the government froze wages, companies were allowed to offer fringe benefits to compete for employees. Later, during the stock market boom of the 1990s, tax laws steered pension funds toward more lavish commitments.

Now those promises are under stress. Many so-called multiemployer pension plans are running out of money, and, if they fail, the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. will go bust along with them.

Congress encouraged multiemployer plans years ago as a way of securing the retirements of highly mobile workers in heavily unionized industries. Teamsters, garment workers, carpenters and others built pensions over years of work even as they moved from one employer to the next, because multiple employers in each industry participate in jointly run plans.

Some of those plans continue to be robust. But industry disruption, union declines and longer average life spans have pushed a number of plans over the brink, and many more are headed toward the cliff.

Take truck drivers. Without their hard work and willingness to spend days away from home and family, American commerce would freeze like a Minnesota pond in January. But the trucking industry of today is a far cry from the industry of 40 years ago. Just as many of today’s retirees were starting out, freight hauling was upended by a wave of deregulation.

This was great for American businesses and consumers, as competition drove the cost of shipping down while enhancing the efficient use of fuel and roads. But the competition killed scores of inefficient regional trucking monopolies. The pension promises of the bankrupt companies fell to the surviving members of the plans. (And some fell through the cracks.)

Now, the largest of those plans, the Central States Teamsters, is failing. Of the 50 largest employers paying into the plan in 1980, only three contribute today, according to testimony in Congress this year. Promises once shared across an industry are now borne by this tiny remnant. The modest, but livable, pensions earned by hundreds of thousands of workers and their spouses will soon be cut in half — or worse — unless something is done.

Similar stories can be told of auto dealership workers, bricklayers, ironworkers, miners, furniture-makers. As the crisis loomed, employers in many of these industries significantly raised their contributions to strengthen their plans. But the underlying dynamic is inexorable: more retirees, living longer lives, depending on fewer workers in fewer companies. At least 25 multiemployer plans have applied to the Treasury Department for permission to slash benefits, with more to come.

None of this is news to Congress, which has created a special joint committee to address the problem, co-chaired by Sens. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). This bipartisanship is appropriate, because policies championed by both parties — conservative union-busting and liberal tax rules, for example — played their parts in steering us to this pass.

And yes, so did union corruption, most notably in the case of the Teamsters.

But beggaring the workers who trusted promises made by their employers, their unions and their government is not the answer. Congress should move quickly on a two-pronged solution — part bailout, part reform.

The bailout part is tough for true conservatives to contemplate because the federal government is already bleeding red ink. But consigning a million or more retirees to poverty is no way to save money, and current funding for the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. is too meager to deliver on the “guarantee” in its name.

As for reform — progressives in the new Democratic House majority aren’t going to like it. Multiemployer pension plans need to be restructured along the same lines already adopted by most private employers. The future of work, future life spans and future economic growth are too uncertain to sustain open-ended guarantees of generous monthly checks. A new culture of individual savings must be fostered and accelerated through vehicles such as 401(k) plans and individual retirement accounts. Minimal backstop pensions might be part of a hybrid plan.

The gathering crisis posed by America’s underfunded wave of baby-boom retirees — of which this is one sliver — is too important to be hostage to partisan rancor. As candidates, Congress, you promised solutions.

Let’s see one.

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