Even after Canadian taxpayers contributed $3.2 billion (Canadian) to General Motors’ pension fund after GM’s bankruptcy proceedings in 2009, the company’s pension fund for unionized employees is still short $2.2 billion – a fair amount for a plan that’s responsible for 30,000 employees.
The pension plan deficit was a key factor in GM’s pitch to the Ontario and Canadian federal governments when asking for bailout funds. Canadian taxpayers ended up providing $10.6 billion out of the $60 billion bailout package. Before we get to cries of “Government Motors” and “picking winners”, the problem appears to be deeper than just GM’s own finances. Pension plans are a big players in Canada’s finance scene (the Ontario Teacher’s Pension Plan and the Canada Pension Plan are among the juggernauts) but lately, low interest rates and increasing lifespan have hampered the returns delivered by pension funds.
The deficit was calculated by an actuary commissioned by the Canadian Auto Workers Union. Based on the value of the plan’s assets and liabilities if it were to be wound down during the date of calculation. Benefits for workers, retirees and surviving spouses would have been slashed by over 33 percent. To make matters worse, GM has seen the number of active workers fall as its number of retirees collecting benefits has risen, a ratio that will only increase in the future.
This trend is not confined solely to GM. Companies like Air Canada and Canadian Pacific Railway are facing similar issues relating to worker/retiree ratios, and GM’s story is indicative of another disturbing precedent – that the public may be forced to foot the bill for a bankrupt corporation’s weak pension plan, whether directly or through the government administered Ontario Pension Benefits Guarantee Fund. GM and the CAW are due to start labor negotiations this summer – look for the issue of pensions to be a major one.