How businesses created pensions to thwart unions

Published: December 22, 2014

Buried in the $1.1 trillion spending bill that President Barack Obama signed into law is a provision that would allow the benefits of retired truckers, construction workers and others who contributed to so-called multi-employer pensions to be cut for the first time.

This change — potentially affecting as many as 1.5 million current and future retirees in underfunded plans, mostly union workers — will undoubtedly set off volleys of finger-pointing to find a culprit for the accelerating collapse of the system. Many commentators will blame unions for extorting extravagant, unsustainable retirement packages from employers that are now falling apart. But it’s not so simple. In fact, the long, tangled history of U.S. private pensions is equally a story of how business sought to manage labor, conserve profits and block the expansion of a modern welfare state.

Research by historians such as Jennifer Klein and Steven Sass helps explain why the United States is almost unique in its reliance on private, company-sponsored pensions instead of comprehensive, government-sponsored benefits.

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