What G.M. has done is perfectly legal. Nor is this the first time an employer has used a pension fund to pay for pruning its ranks. Well-subsidized early retirements are a time-honored practice in the public sector, where teachers often retire after 30 years and police officers can sometimes claim rich pensions after working as few as 20 years. Many corporations once offered sweetened pensions to people in their 50s and early 60s as well, but they have generally stopped the practice because it locked them into making payments indefinitely.
G.M. never stopped. To the contrary. The question now is whether the plan will run short of money and what effect that might have on the company, its workers and retirees, and the federal government, which insures pensions and is now G.M.’s majority owner.
In the short term, G.M.’s newly minted retirees, those in their 40s and 50s, have the most to lose if the plan is rapidly depleted and fails. But over time, the risk will shift to the government and the dwindling number of active U.A.W. workers still building cars at G.M. For those workers, a secure pension is already becoming an increasingly distant dream.
“They could find that they don’t get their full pensions when they retire, because the plan has had to be terminated because of the payments to current retirees,” Mr. Elliott said. “There are definitely these intergenerational transfer issues with underfunded pensions.”
G.M. declined to discuss the situation, although it has said it intends to keep the plan going when it emerges from bankruptcy.
For decades, G.M.’s blue-collar workers have earned pensions with two components. The first is the “basic benefit,” currently about $1,590 a month, or $19,000 a year, for an auto worker with 30 years’ service. The U.A.W. won this “30-and-out pension” after a strike at G.M. in 1970, and still considers it something close to an inalienable right. In a 30-and-out plan, someone can go to work at 18, work nonstop for 30 years and retire at 48.
The second part is a supplement, worth what each worker’s Social Security benefit will be on the earliest date he or she can start drawing the benefits, currently age 62. (Even then, the workers are joining Social Security three years early, so they qualify for just 80 percent of the full benefits they would get at 65.)
Even in the days when G.M. was healthy, years ago, most of its 30-and-out retirees were too young to qualify for Social Security. The supplements were supposed to make up the difference until the retiree became eligible for Social Security.
The total dollar amounts are not eye-popping. Unlike many pension plans in the public sector, G.M.’s U.A.W. plan cannot be “spiked” by working insane amounts of overtime just before retirement. Nor is it indexed for inflation.
“What we’re getting isn’t enough to live on,” said Dwayne Humphries, a 54-year-old G.M. retiree in Arlington, Tex., who completed his 30 years last year, retired, and is now getting the standard $3,150 a month, or $37,500 a year. Roughly half of the total, $19,000 a year, is the basic benefit. The rest duplicates Social Security.
“It’s tight,” said Mr. Humphries, who was earning $50,000 to $60,000 a year before his retirement. “It takes a different way of living than what you were used to.”
To make ends meet, he helps out with his son’s small business, cleaning swimming pools.