Donald Trump collected a massive $168,000 union pension. Will he fight for yours?


Donald Trump ran for president as a self-proclaimed champion of working-class people — a self-image he has maintained mostly by taking credit for saving U.S. jobs he had little to no part in saving.

Yet Trump has ignored a potential disaster for America's blue-collar workers much larger than the loss of a few thousand jobs: a growing crisis for major pension funds that threatens to dramatically cut the retirement savings of hundreds of thousands of unionized workers, many of whom have already begun their retirement.

Fixing that system ought to be a natural priority for Trump, not only because policy solutions already exist that will help save American workers' nest eggs, but also because doing so would help secure Donald Trump's own union pension. 

Yes, you read that right: Donald Trump has union pension.

Among the many remarkable discoveries found in Trump's limited financial disclosures to date is the fact that the self-proclaimed billionaire real-estate mogul was, as recently as 2015, still collecting a $168,000 pension — and maybe more — from the Screen Actors Guild for playing himself in The Apprentice. A spokesperson for the Trump transition team did not immediately respond to Mic's inquiry about whether Trump still received his SAG pension in 2016.

Now that Trump is about to be president, the most important question is: What is Trump's plan to save the system that is designed to protect millions of union pensions like his own?

Ric Francis/AP

Collectively bargained pension plans pay out a certain amount of money every year regardless of market conditions. Yet, over the past few years, a number of large collectively bargained pension funds — known in the industry as "multiemployer plans" — have faced serious financial trouble due in part to declining unionization, job losses in unionized industries and the lasting effects of the Great Recession.

Not all the large pension funds are unstable — the SAG-AFTRA fund that pays Trump has been in good shape for the past six years — but millions of workers' retirements are at risk as many pensions and the systems that back them up are in grave shape.

In 2014, Congress responded to the financial distress in the unstable plans by passing the controversial Multiemployer Pension Reform Act (MPRA), which allowed multiemployer pension plans — with the approval of the U.S. Treasury Department — to cut benefits to current retirees. Prior to the passage of MPRA, pension funds could make changes to cut benefits to future retirees but couldn't cut benefits for those who were already in retirement. In other words, for the first time ever, Congress allowed pension funds to cut the monthly payments they make to people who are already in retirement and relying on such payments to get by.

The U.S. Treasury approved the first of these plans in December, cutting benefits to hundreds of retired ironworkers who were members of the Iron Workers Local 17 in Cleveland. Karen Friedman, executive vice president of the Pension Rights Center, has already beseeched Donald Trump to help save the ironworkers' pensions in an op-ed for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

The picture is more bleak for other workers. In May, the U.S. Treasury rejected a proposal to cut the benefits for plans in the Central States Pension Fund — which covers more than 400,000 workers across the U.S., most of whom are truck drivers — because the cuts would not make the fund solvent. "At this time, only government funding will prevent Central States participants from losing their benefits entirely," the director of the fund wrote in a May letter to beneficiaries.

Central States isn't the only troubled, large pension fund that the MPRA is ill-suited to rescue.

"The large plans have deteriorated enough that you can't cut benefits enough to save the plan," Michael Kreps, former senior counsel to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, said in an interview.

Normally when a plan becomes insolvent, pensioners can recoup some of their lost nest egg through a government-created insurance program called the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC). But that insurance covers just a fraction of the amount paid out by the original plan. What's more, the PBGC is currently facing its own crisis: Absent some action from Congress, the PBGC's insurance fund for multiemployer pensions is projected to be insolvent within the next 10 years, meaning little to no help for pensioners in failing plans.

There are solutions to this crisis that a Trump administration could pursue if they are serious about helping workers and retirees. A bill sponsored by former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders called the Keep Our Promises Act would help save multiemployer pension plans without making cuts to current benefits by providing federal funds to the PBGC and giving it new authority to help struggling plans.

Evan Vucci/AP

The Republican Congress is unlikely to pursue progressive legislation like the Keep Our Promises Act, but Trump, who has been more than willing to use his bully pulpit, could pressure them. Plus, helping secure the multiemployer pension system means doing something Trump has been more than willing to do: look out for his own interests.