But among the obligations that caused GM to file for bankruptcy, two are directly related to worker entitlements. In 2003, GM sold $13.5 billion in bonds -- one of the biggest debt offerings ever -- and plowed the money into its pension fund. Then, in 2007, after the UAW went on strike, GM agreed to funnel more than $30 billion into a special trust for retiree health care.
With each new labor contract, GM management found it easier to grant sweeter future benefits than to raise current wages. Over time, benefits went up much more quickly. That left GM with a daunting unfunded health-care obligation. As retirees lived longer -- one died in 2006 at age 111 -- and the cost of providing health care mushroomed, the expense grew beyond anything imagined in 1949. GM stayed current on pensions, but the money it funneled into retirement plans left less for engineering and restyling. And shareholder dividends? Forget ‘em. Over a 15-year stretch, GM plowed $55 billion into pensions and only $13 billion into dividends. That’s why I said the shareholders had been disenfranchised. Eventually, when the competitive landscape turned, GM fell behind on pensions too. By 2002, GM’s pension fund was $20 billion under-funded. It borrowed to make the pension fund whole, but that merely transferred the problem to the balance sheet.