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The tragic history of GM's pension Add to ...

It needs to be said again: The NDP government in Ontario really screwed up when they absolved General Motors of meeting their pension obligations.

(I've covered the whole sordid history on the NDP and pensions here and talk about the GM pension challenge here.)

Despite being deemed by the NDP as "too big to fail," GM has now failed.

Today, GM is basically owned and operated by Barack Obama, and he's thinking very seriously about bankruptcy. That would throw open the company's obligations to creditors, including its shareholders, parts suppliers, its current workers and - most tragically - its former workers.

Bankruptcy could force the "wind-up" of GM's pension plan. Thanks to chronic underfunding of their pension obligations, there is not enough money to pay out all the former and current employees. If GM is restructured into a much smaller company, it may not be able to meet its obligations and there could be an impact on the pensioners.

Understandably frightened, GM pensioners want the province of Ontario to completely guarantee their pensions.

But the impact of that move would be very costly to everyone else in the province.

GM's outstanding pension liability - from what I can cobble together - could be as much as $6-billion. 

That is $461 for every man, woman and child currently living in Ontario.

Or to put it another way, that's more than the amount the average taxpayer pays in their Ontario Health Premium, the tax Dalton McGuinty brought forward to such rancour in 2004.

Certainly, the province will have to play a role in protecting pensioners hurt by a potential bankruptcy.

But Ontario can't enter those negotiations having already written a blank cheque. They have admitted there isn't enough money in the Pension Benefits Guarantee Fund, and the CAW responded with a howl of protest.

But the CAW needs to accept a share of the blame for today's circumstances, along with GM's management and the NDP.

As recently as last summer, the head of the Canadian Auto Workers was reassuring us all that pension failure was "so remote a possibility it's not worth speculating on."

A GM spokesperson was answering questions about pension obligations with: "We are going to be here for another 100 years."

Neither would likely want to repeat those statement's today.

GM was a company in need of a major transformation fifty years ago, and every year they got more hidebound and rigid. Instead of shedding defunct brands, management relied on accounting tricks like funneling wage pressures into off-book employee pension and health obligations.

Management was aided and abetted by union acceptance of rich pensions in exchange for more modest wage concessions. The UAW and CAW acquiesced to GM's "Wimpy" strategy: "I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today."

The regulator also failed, thanks to the decision by the NDP to let GM skip out on its workers. The CAW's Jim Stanford points to this move as the core of the current pension shortfall, and he is 100 per cent right.

Relaxing the pension rules was like giving a limping man a cane; it produced a dependency. Since that decision, the lower rates were built into GM's structure and returning to paying the full obligation was too onerous for an already wobbly company.

But for someone who worked 30 years on the line, blame is not important. What's next is what is important.

There is great news, fair news and bad news for GM pensioners.

The great news is that for the short-term their pensions are safe, the cheques will keep coming and they don't need to panic. This is going to take months or years, so keep on living.

The fair news is that - after all the wrangling - GM pensioners will probably wind up with a pretty fair deal that sees them retain the vast majority of their pension and benefit package. There will be a reduction of some amount, but it will probably be in the neighbourhood of 4 per cent, not 40 per cent.

The bad news is that there are going to be scary days between now and then as the various sides negotiate a new future for Canada's largest manufacturer.

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