DAYTON, Ohio — From the bed of a Ford pickup truck outside a now-dilapidated former Delphi auto parts plant here, Mary Miller called for transparency from President Barack Obama over the “theft of our pensions.”
Miller, a self-described “divorced mother of four young adults,” and about 200 Delphi salaried retirees gathered at the shuttered auto plant in Dayton last Thursday morning to ask President Obama to right the wrongs they believe his administration inflicted upon them during the 2009 auto industry bailout.
The Obama administration terminated the pensions, health care and life insurance of more than 20,000 Delphi retirees during that bailout. Internal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) emails The Daily Caller published on Aug. 7 show the Obama White House and Treasury Department have consistently misrepresented the decision-making process behind the backroom deal. (RELATED: Emails: Geithner, Treasury drove cutoff of non-union Delphi workers’ pensions)
The emails demonstrate that White House and Treasury officials were behind the pension terminations and that Secretary Tim Geithner and his Treasury Department were the driving force pushing them. The emails also contradict sworn testimony in which several Obama administration figures have said the decision to terminate the pensions came from the PBGC.
The PBGC is a federal government agency that handles private-sector pension benefits issues. Its charter calls for independent representation of pension beneficiaries’ interests. Federal law is clear: The PBGC is the only government entity that may initiate termination of a pension or move toward doing so.
Last week, right before the Dayton rally where hundreds gathered to call for fair treatment and justice, TheDC published additional emails showing those same senior Obama officials’ actions enriched their former firms and may have resulted in personal financial windfalls in the process. (RELATED: Emails: Obama officials enriched former firms, possibly themselves with auto bailout)
The message from the rally on the day of Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention was clear: The 20,000 disaffected Delphi pensioners believe the president should fix what he did to them now or they will work to make sure he loses his re-election effort.
Miller and the others here don’t want to play political games, but they feel ignored by Washington. And precious few politicians — Ohio Republican Rep. Mike Turner, for instance, who attended the rally — have weighed in publicly on the controversy. That leaves Miller stumping like a candidate for public office, arguing for the pensions she and her fellow retirees earned with the sweat of their brows.
The plant behind Miller was once a thriving cog in American industry. Now its windows are shattered and stained. Graffiti is sprayed over the outer concrete walls. The rust on the chain-link fences around the building has almost rotted through the iron. The parking lot where many of the hundreds of protesting Delphi pensioners used to park their cars every day before work is now a jungle of weeds growing through age-old pavement cracks.
Some of the weeds have grown so high that the former autoworkers had to drive their cars around them just to get in.
The plant was destined to close, though. Market changes during the 2000s made it an unnecessary expense, and no one here blames the president for that.
Saving jobs is someone else’s fight. This protest is about retirees’ pensions.
Miller said that she once worked at a similar plant nearby.
“I worked at Delphi’s Needmore Road operation as a human resources manager in 2008 when the plant was permanently closed,” she said. “I lost my job and I was forced to retire.”
Tom Rose, another salaried Delphi retiree, told The Daily Caller this plant is one of seven that once thrived in Dayton.
“Six of them are closed,” said Rose, “and the seventh one only has 200 people working at it.”
When she was forced into retirement, Miller thought she had the pension she worked her whole life to earn to fall back on. Even so, she went on to start her own business to supplement it.
“I am now a certified personal coach,” she said. “I started my own business … in 2009. Being just 57, I knew I needed to start a new career to earn additional money to support myself and my family.”
The recession made it “challenging” for Miller to get her business off the ground, but what really hurt her was the “decision by her president’s Auto Task Force to top off the pensions of union members” — but not hers and those of the other salaried Delphi retirees.
When the dust settled on the auto bailout, the 20,000 discontinued pensions all belonged to non-unionized retirees. The Obama administration is notably close — both politically and financially — to organized labor. Coincidence or not, the result left a sour taste in the mouths of those left out in the cold.
Hundreds of them cheered as Miller said the Obama administration’s moves that ended up “throw[ing] the Delphi salaried retirees and our families to the wolves” were a “stunning abuse of power.”
“I worked for 22 years for GM and then nine more for Delphi to earn my pension,” she said.
“For me and my fellow retirees, the burden of trying to figure out how to make ends meet gets heavier every day, as we struggle to pay our bills without the pension dollars we worked so long and hard to earn.”
Miller believes Obama has failed to represent Americans who didn’t have union bosses arguing on their behalf.
“Rather than being a president to all people, President Obama decided to let his henchmen exclude from justice those who weren’t politically connected enough to him,” she said, to booming applause.
“Mr. President,” she said, speaking as if the president could hear her from some nearby invisible chair, “the Delphi salaried retirees are members of the same middle class you talk so much about wanting to help. Your actions have crippled us financially at a time in our lives when we can’t recoup the losses you have chosen to inflict upon us.”
“President Obama, you have had three years to fix this grave injustice,” she went on. “But neither you nor anyone who works for you has lifted a finger to remedy this unjust financial burden you chose to permanently place on our shoulders.”
“Is this still America?”
The rally felt like a small-town America tea party rally, its grassroots character reminiscent of the 2010 wave that swept Republicans into control of Congress. Former autoworkers held signs bashing President Obama with his own words.
“Hope” and “change” were punch lines to the Delphi veterans, many of whom say they voted for Obama in 2008.
One pensionless protester who used to deliver intra-company mail held a sign rapping Hollywood actress Betty White for supporting Obama.
Rally-goers brought folding lawn chairs out to the vacant lot where a parked Ford pickup truck served as a makeshift stage.
As Miller hopped down from the truck bed, fellow Delphi retiree Mike McCurdy hopped on it to speak his mind. McCurdy reminded the crowd that he and his peers “used to be” members of the “strong middle class” that built Dayton and other rust belt cities. The Obama administration, he said, took away their pensions and their livelihoods.
“It takes a strong middle class to really build a strong community — and we’d like to get that back,” he said.
“And it just didn’t happen in Dayton, Ohio. It happened in Defiance, Ohio. It happened in Sandusky, Ohio. It happened in Warren, Ohio. It happened in Cleveland, Columbus and Cincinnati and Youngstown. We can take pride in what we did to help this community, this state, and I guess you could say ‘We did build it!’”
“Now we have a president and an administration that wants to take credit for the auto bailout and all the jobs at General Motors that were saved, or he claims,” McCurdy continued. “But it’s the same president that disavows any responsibility or any role in what happened to us.”
“Well, Mr. President,” McCurdy said, “you can’t have it both ways.”
Indeed, communities across Ohio are hurting. In Warren, for instance, Democratic mayor William Franklin recently took President Obama to task on how this decision-making process cost his city, by some estimates, more than 1,500 jobs and more than $58 million in annual revenue.
“This is not about politics. Our economy in this area of Ohio has been struggling through one of the worst recessions in history. Jobs have been lost, homes foreclosed, bankruptcies — of both corporate and personal natures — have occurred, and businesses have closed,” the Democratic mayor wrote in an August newspaper op-ed.
“The economic losses associated with the treatment of the Delphi Salaried Retirees has added to the pain in the city of Warren,” Franklin wrote. “The good news is, should the Delphi salaried retirees regain their pensions, the economic impact of that would be felt in the city of Warren almost immediately, and it would continue for years to come.”
McCurdy jumped off the truck, and Rose – the brains behind the rally — leapt up for his turn. He said this was the first political rally he has ever organized.
“This is not management versus union,” Rose told the assembled crowd. “It’s right versus wrong. All we have ever asked for is fair and equitable treatment.”
Rose told rally-goers some of the more intimate details of the Delphi scandal. He explained how the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Assets Relief Program (SIGTARP) is investigating what happened, who made the key decisions and why. The crowd cheered when Rose said it took Republican Ohio Rep. Mike Turner, who was at the rally, and the “threat of subpoenas” from the House oversight committee to get several former Obama administration officials to agree to even talk to SIGTARP about what happened.
At the eleventh hour before a House hearing in July, former White House auto czar Ron Bloom and former Treasury officials Matt Feldman and Harry Wilson cracked. They agreed to stop stonewalling investigators.
They had for years refused to sit down with SIGTARP Christy Romero to discuss their roles in the process that terminated so many nonunion retirees’ pensions. Since Romero doesn’t have subpoena power and can’t compel testimony, she asked Congress to help force the officials to talk.
Before the hearing started, all three agreed to interviews with her. (RELATED: Former Obama auto czar, Treasury officials break in eleventh hour after years of stonewalling on GM bailout)
The “truth is starting to emerge,” Rose said.
“The DSRA [Delphi Salaried Retirees Association] has presented a solution to the Obama administration that will fully fund our pension plans with zero taxpayer dollars,” Rose said to cheers from the crowd.
“Hope and change? President Obama, I hope that you have the integrity to change this injustice created by your administration because if you don’t fix this, we will,” the one-time autoworker said.
Rep. Turner spoke next.
“I want you to know: You are the middle class,” Turner said to the crowd.
“When the president talks about protecting the middle class, protecting health care and protecting pensions, he not only let you down, he showed what he really means. And what he really means is [he’d do that] for some. You had just as much rights as everyone else. Your pensions were protected by contracts, by assets and by the laws of this country. The fact that your pensions were taken in a back-door deal in the White House is absolutely wrong.”
Turner expects to get the Delphi workers’ pensions restored.
“The fact that Tim Geithner was on every side of this deal, that conflicts of interest were raging and the fact that you were put on the table and someone made a deal with your pensions is wrong and we’re going to get those pensions back,” Turner said.