The billions in aid Congress is considering throwing at Detroit is less of a lifeline to the U.S. automobile industry than it is a bailout of the powerful union representing hundreds of thousands of workers. The Big Three automakers on Wednesday pressed Congress for $25 billion in loans from the federal government. They stressed that the government will get paid back before shareholders receive a penny in dividends or bondholders get any of their money. What is the one entity that stands in line before the government? You guessed it. The UAW. The bill circulating in the House of Representatives would allow the automakers to continue making payments to the trust fund established to fund obligations for retiree health benefits. The automakers established the Voluntary Employee Beneficiary Association in 2007 to get the health plan funding off their books. VEBAs, a popular tool for distressed companies, also help protect retirees' benefits in case the companies go bankrupt, according to Voluntary.com. Obviously both the automakers and the union saw the writing on the wall last year and began making strategic moves to prepare for it. The only problem is that the automakers ran out of cash to keep feeding the beast. Starting in July, the companies began requesting payment deferrals. The UAW granted the request, but the union is getting antsy for its money.
According to the Detroit News and the UAW Web site, General Motors ( GM) owes the fund $1.7 billion, plus 9% interest on top of the $5.3 billion payment scheduled for 2010. All said, GM owes $34 billion in cash and stock to the trust fund. Even if it gets a loan, the first payment will be to the trust fund. The government is only charging 5% interest to the automakers. Too bad the government didn't have the union negotiate its terms.
And it isn't just GM. Chrysler owes $9.8 billion and Ford ( F) already took a $4.5 billion cash charge for its payments this year, as noted in the earnings reported for the second quarter. The Big Three are on the hook for $60 billion in payments to the trust fund. UAW President Ron Gettelfinger testified to Congress that the government should make the new loans to the automakers so the companies can meet its obligations to retirees. If the automakers go bankrupt before the fund gets its payments, all bets are off. The UAW, which did not respond to a request for comment for this story, threateningly talks about the Armageddon that would ensue if a major automaker filed for bankruptcy. But let's look at how many financial services jobs have been lost due to the financial crisis. According to outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, 153,105 jobs were cut from financial services firms last year and another 111,201 have been cut this year. Expect the job cuts to continue into 2009. That's more than the 240,000 workers in the Michigan-based Big Three. The UAW frequently notes three million workers are connected to the auto industry, but that includes everyone even remotely connected -- like employees of parts suppliers and people that work at diners near the plants. While the parts suppliers are heavily reliant on the U.S. automakers, Toyota ( TM), Honda ( HMC) and BMW will still be around to buy parts. There are no loans to help laid-off Lehman Brothers or Bear Stearns workers. How about those Citigroup ( C) workers? Who's helping them? No one. The loans are being linked to fuel efficiency and international competitiveness. But the bailout isn't about the cars. They have fuel efficient cars that people buy, like the Chevy Aveo. They have hybrids like the Ford Escape Hybrid. They sell cars in other countries. It isn't that the U.S. consumer can't get loans to buy the cars, they can provide financing for car loans. This bailout is about the UAW.