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July 17, 2019Jay Blumenthal - AFM International Secretary-Treasurer
It’s a challenge writing this month’s column since it is being written before the AFM Convention and published after the convention. Having attended many AFM conventions, I’ve learned that much can happen. There are often several unanticipated twists, turns, and unexpected issues that come before the delegates. This is all part of the democratic process. At times it can get quite messy, but ultimately it’s a very healthy process for our union.
While I have no crystal ball, I do anticipate many questions will be raised in the convention workshop about the Pension Fund’s recent declaration of “critical and declining” status and the Fund trustees’ intention to apply under the Multiemployer Pension Reform Act (MPRA) to reduce benefits for many of the participants. The reduction in benefits is truly unfortunate, but making sure there is a Pension Fund for musicians in the future is so important for all of us. I know whatever the reductions may be, we will get through it together—as a union—sharing the burden to ensure future pension benefits and a brighter future for all Fund participants, present and future.
There are some participants who prefer no reduction of pension benefits even though it means the Fund will eventually run out of money to pay benefits to anyone in the future. How could this possibly be considered responsible? Eventually, the money runs out for everyone and this would be antithetical to the union’s mission. Doesn’t it make sense to take a “haircut” now in order to preserve a pension benefit (although smaller) for all participants? I expect there will be much teeth gnashing and finger pointing at the convention but, at the end of the day, until the overall imbalance between contributions and disbursements is addressed, the dire forecast will not change.
In my opinion, the greatest contributing factor that created the necessity to reduce pension benefits came from Wall Street and the banking excesses that led to the 2008 Great Recession. I remember thinking at the time how irresponsible it was for lending institutions to loan money for home purchases with little or no supporting documentation from the borrower (“No-Doc” mortgages), then bundling these very shaky mortgages, with agencies rating the bundles AAA and then selling them to unwitting investors. As borrowers defaulted on the loans, the housing market and the stock market crashed. In fact, it brought the whole financial system to its knees. Throughout this whole debacle, the AFM-EPF needed to keep paying out pension benefits even as the stock market collapsed.
Recently, I watched a PBS show called Firing Line. The show is hosted by Margaret Hoover, who is very skilled at asking probing questions. In an interview with Tony Blair, former prime minister of the UK, Hoover made reference to the far-right and far-left populism sweeping the US, UK, and most of Europe. Hoover asked Blair, “How do you define Populism?” Blair responded, “So Populism to me is taking an issue that’s of genuine concern and exploiting it in order to create division and political enmity between people … They ride the anger, they don’t provide the answers.”
I’m concerned we are seeing this within our own union. It is corrosive and destroys the very source of our strength and power—our unity.
At this point, no one knows exactly how deep the reductions will need to be to ensure the Fund’s future viability, but as we all wait to find out, let’s not forget our union values. We get through challenging times not by finger-pointing and blame (which does nothing to help the situation) but rather by sticking together with a focus on addressing issues with the greater good in mind. That is the union way—hopefully, it will be our way.