Deal or No Deal? This time it's not just a popular television show allowing players to choose a briefcase to help determine how much money they receive. Now, many General Motors ( GM) workers are also faced with making a deal for their financial lives.

In one briefcase, GM is offering its workers who are eligible for retirement a $35,000 payout if they retire now, keeping their full post-retirement pension, health care and insurance benefits.

Inside another briefcase is more money -- up to $140,000 -- for those who don't qualify for retirement. But they get the money only if they leave the company now and give up all their promised post-retirement benefits, except vested pension benefits.

Or the "players" can wait for that call from the "banker" in this game, hoping to get a better offer. That means they'll have to hang around and see what might be in future briefcases.

It could mean more money for the workers who don't take the current deal. If GM prospers as a result of cost cuts, remaining workers' paychecks could eventually rise.

Or they could wait for the next briefcase -- and find it nearly empty. If workers hang on to their jobs and the company continues its downhill fall, the next suitcase might contain only an unemployment check!

It's one thing to watch a game show and see smiling girls in tight dresses reveal the numbers inside the briefcase. It's quite another to put your entire life on the line.

If a worker takes the current cash deal, what's he supposed to do for the next 20 years? Many of those workers don't have transferable skills. And they certainly won't find the same income, even if they do transfer to jobs offered by non-union companies that are now building cars in America.

Even worse, they'd be without health insurance, exposing them to financial catastrophe if a family member becomes ill. That upfront payout from GM -- even at the highest numbers -- would be wiped out by an uninsured illness.

Then there's the question of the future pension checks. Those pensions have value -- or do they? Could they become just another discount briefcase?

As workers in the steel and airline industries have painfully learned, pension promises are only as good as the company that stands behind them. Millions of Americans who worked for companies in those industries will have only the remnants of that planned-for pension check because their company went bankrupt and defaulted on its retirement promises.

The Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp. was created in 1974. Since then, it has taken over pension payments to more than one million workers. Last year it paid out $3.7 billion in benefits. Funded by contributions from well-managed company pension plans, the PBGC appears to offer retirement security by replacing corporate pension promises.

But take a closer look. For plans that are taken over in 2006, the PBGC's maximum guarantee is $47,659.08 a year ($3,971.59 monthly) for those who retire at age 65. And if you retire early, at age 55, the maximum guarantee falls to $21,446.64 yearly ($1,787.22 monthly). That's less than half of what many airline and steel workers had been promised. Workers in their 50s, close to retirement but not quite there, will be hit the hardest.

That lesson adds uncertainty to the decision that must be made by GM workers. If General Motors were forced to file for bankruptcy -- unthinkable, but not impossible -- then sticking around for the pension briefcase could be a very bad deal.

The United Auto Workers union is playing the role of comedian Howie Mandel in this show, brokering the deal. Only it's no laughing matter. The union negotiated with GM to create this package. But the more workers who take the briefcase and run, the fewer members the union will have, and the less power to negotiate salary demands for remaining GM employees.

Years ago, the UAW gave up some salary demands for promises of future retirement benefits for its members. At the time, it seemed like a good deal -- easy for the companies to promise, and enticing for the workers to accept.

Those deals were made in an era of "What's good for General Motors is good for America." This is a different era. Now the issue is far more personal: "What's good for the GM worker?" And GM's survival may well depend on whether workers say "Deal or No Deal." That's the Savage Truth.
Terry Savage is an expert on personal finance and also appears as a commentator on national television on issues related to investing and the financial markets. Savage's personal finance column by the Chicago Sun-Times is nationally syndicated, and she released her fourth book, The Savage Number: How Much Money Do You Need? in June 2005. Savage also was the first woman trader on the Chicago Board Options Exchange and is a registered investment adviser for stocks and futures. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Michigan, Savage currently serves as a director of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Corp. She also has served on the boards of the McDonald's and Pennzoil corporations.