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Will GM's health-care agreement with UAW retirees accelerate a trend?

WASHINGTON — Its years as the nation's largest employer in the rearview mirror, General Motors may still be setting the trend for corporate-worker relations in shedding its obligation for the health care of 340,000 retirees.

GM says its historic deal with the United Auto Workers as part of a new four-year labor contract will transfer $46.7 billion in retiree health care liability to a trust fund that will be administered by the union.

Other corporations are watching with interest, said Glenn Feldman, director of the Center for Labor Education and Research at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. They may soon be pushing unions to let them put their pension or other benefits into similar trust funds called voluntary employees beneficiary associations, or VEBAs.

"I think people will be watching what happens with GM and UAW and the retirees very closely, and if it looks like a viable plan, it could likely spread," Feldman said.

GM will contribute $24.1 billion into the trust in January, and make up to 20 additional $165 million payments anytime the fund's level is insufficient to provide benefits for at least 25 years.

Both GM and UAW say it's a good deal: Retirees' benefits are safe from creditors if GM ever goes bankrupt, and the automaker sheds all those billions of dollars in unfunded retiree health care costs to the delight of Wall Street.

UAW President Ron Gettelfinger said the union's projections show the VEBA will secure retirees for 80 years.

Chrysler, in its recent negotiations with the UAW, agreed to put as much as $11 billion into a union-run trust that will pick up Chrysler's $19 billion in future retiree health care expenses. Ford is expected to ask for something similar from the UAW when it begins its negotiation with the union.

But getting other unions in other industries to agree to letting companies clear their books of their biggest liability by transferring billion-dollar health care programs to them may be a tough sell, analysts say.

"It flies in the face of what unions do. They don't administer employee benefits, except in rare instances," said Gary Chaison, a labor specialist at Clark University in Worcester, Mass.

"What unions do is negotiate employee benefits. Plus, it doesn't reduce the cost of retiree health care. It just transfers the problem to the union. Essentially GM is telling the UAW, 'You figure that one out. You figure out how to reduce costs. It's your baby now."'

At heart tax-exempt trust funds, VEBAs exist only to ensure that health care, pension, unemployment or other benefits are paid to the people they cover. But they also shift all the risk of health care and retirement costs from the employer to the employees.

Retirees at heavy equipment-maker Caterpillar Inc., already know the downside: The trust established to pay for health insurance costs for retirees went bankrupt six years after it was set up.

Caterpillar retirees now are fighting in a class-action federal lawsuit to hold the corporation responsible for their increased copays, premiums and deductibles.

There are thousands of smaller VEBAs in existence already, but only about one-third of the larger companies and corporations have them.

Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., for example, rid itself of $1.3 billion of retiree health care obligations in favor of a $1 billion lump sum payment to the United Steelworkers in 2006.

Problems start when companies don't fully fund the trusts or health care costs begin to outstrip the fund's investments, analysts said.

Unions that agree to VEBA deals likely are betting on the possibility that there will be some kind of nationalized health care in the United States in the next 10 years that will take some of the pressure off their trusts, said Ross Eisenbrey, a labor expert and vice president of the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute.

Even without a national health care plan in the works, unions may want to consider this kind of deal, especially considering the current state of bankruptcy law for corporations, analysts said.

"What happens is that these companies go in, they file for bankruptcy, they get a court to cancel their contracts with the workers and they get out of all their obligations and retirees get pennies on the dollar," Eisenbrey said.

He said the tax-exempt trust funds are a risk for workers "but the status quo is a risk as well."

A VEBA set up for Caterpillar retirees in 1998 ran dry in just six years. Retired workers sued Caterpillar in May, saying they are entitled to lifetime health care benefits based on the contract in effect when they left the company.

Detroit Diesel Corp., set up a VEBA in 1993 that was exhausted by 2004. That case is also in federal court, with 1,126 retirees and surviving family members saying they are now suddenly saddled with out-of-pocket health care expenses.

Democrats in Congress are working on legislation that would protect health care and retirement benefits from bankruptcy. But until workers have that kind of protection, setting up a VEBA may be the only way to guarantee that some kind of health care money will be around for retirees.

"If the employer puts enough money into the fund to make it viable," Feldman said, "then it's at least worth a shot."