Award season has begun and Hollywood is all a buzz with who won Golden Globes and the anticipation for the Academy Awards next month. One star-studded contender, The Irishman, has a chance to make history by being the first film predominantly viewed on the streaming service NetFlix, instead of cinemas, to win an Oscar. The Irishman has a lot of Hollywood clout behind it being directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci. It was also produced by De Niro and Scorsese. The Irishman is based on the true story of Frank “the Irishman” Sherran, a mob hitman and high ranking Teamster Union official who, among other things, claimed to have had a pivotal role in the disappearance of former Teamster President Jimmy Hoffa. The crux of the film is Frank’s relationship with the mob and Jimmy Hoffa from the mid-fifties to Hoffa’s disappearance in 1975. However, as a self-professed ERISA geek, I nominate the film for best depiction of the need for ERISA.
The Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) was signed into law on Labor Day of 1974. A major reason for the enactment of ERISA was the mismanagement of employee benefit plans. ERISA is a reform statute that, among other things, requires those handling retirement plan funds to be fiduciaries and act in the best interest of plan participants. It also makes them personally liable for losses to the plan if they breach their fiduciary duties. Additionally. certain transactions with respect to plan funds that might benefit a fiduciary personally such as self-dealing transactions are prohibited.
An underlying thread in The Irishman is the mob’s influence over the Teamster Union’s pension fund and how the Trustees of the plan authorized milli
ons of dollars of loans from the plan to various mob controlled businesses and real estate ventures, and whether such loans would ever be paid back. In the movie it is clear that the mob felt no obligation to repay them. Some believe that similar loans from the Teamster’s Central States Pension Fund, for which Jimmy Hoffa went to prison, is why that plan continues to be in the precarious position it is in today, expected to run out of money in 2025. If nothing changes it is expected to bankrupt the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.
ERISA gave employee participants as well as the United States Department of Labor the right to enforce fiduciary duties through the courts. So, perhaps, those loans would not be made today.
So when you are watching all the award shows and hearing about The Irishman and its place in movie history, also remember the story’s role in ERISA history.