Despite widespread reports that the United Auto Workers union will emerge as the controlling shareholder of a restructured Chrysler, that is not formally true. But a closer look suggests that UAW President Ron Gettelfinger’s recent comments that the UAW will not own a majority stake in Chrysler are not exactly right either.
The 55% stake that current Chrysler owners propose to issue will go to the Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association, or VEBA, set up as a result of collective bargaining negotiations between the UAW and the Big Three in late 2007 and early 2008. To secure ratification of those dramatically concessionary deals, the UAW and Big Three promised auto workers their health care plans would be secure for “80 years” under the new off balance sheet VEBA.
It turns out that may not be the case. Originally, the Big Three promised to put sufficient assets into the VEBA to pay health care obligations and to secure those assets from any risk of bankruptcy. But over the last year the companies got into further trouble and have now sought agreement with the union and its retired members to substitute equity for cash payments. Of course, that means the VEBA is directly linked to the financial health, or rather lack thereof, of the Big Three.
(By the way, to be clear, there is only one VEBA, for all three auto companies but it manages three separate health care plans with separate asset contributions owed in different amounts and structures from each of the auto companies.)
So who will be calling the shots at Chrysler with that huge 55% share – assuming a federal bankruptcy judge confirms the proposed deal (and that is far from certain)?
In theory it will be the board of trustees of the VEBA, also known as “the Committee” in public filings of the agreements behind the new structure. It is supposed to consist of 5 UAW representatives and 6 independent members.
But very little has been heard from this group. Despite their fiduciary obligation to protect retirees they do not seem to have objected to the very risky exchange of cash payments for equity in Chrysler. And the terms of the new Chrysler deal do not bode well either: despite owning more than half the company, apparently the VEBA will only get the right to appoint one board member out of nine.
In fact, it is a little unclear who really is on the VEBA board but one reliable source (Pension and Investments online magazine) lists the following individuals (since there are 6 listed here and none are UAW members this is likely the list of the so-called “independent” members):
Robert Naftaly, a former Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan executive, who will serve as the VEBA’s chairman.
Olena Berg-Lacey, a former assistant secretary of labor;
Marianne Udow-Phillips, director of the Center for Healthcare Quality and Transformation, Ann Arbor, Mich.;
Teresa Ghilarducci, a retirement policy guru at the New School for Social Research, New York;
David Baker Lewis, founder of Detroit-based law firm Lewis & Munday; and
Ed Welch, director of the Workers’ Compensation Center at Michigan State University’s School of Labor and Industrial Relations in East Lansing, Mich.
Of course, “independent” is a relative term. All six were presumably appointed with UAW President Ron Gettelfinger’s approval. They know that, he knows that. And the UAW controls the remaining five seats. In other words, the UAW only needs one vote from this group of six to completely control the VEBA itself and, in turn, Chrysler!
Now, how the supposedly independent Committee of 11 is supposed to defend the fiduciary interests of now and future auto worker retirees under such pressure is anybody’s guess.
Auto workers – meet the new boss, same as the old boss? We’ll see.
(You can read more here and here about the VEBA structure and the risks the UAW took with their retiree benefits.)