Could the UAW buy GM?

As part of the GM-UAW

settlement, GM is paying $29.9 billion upfront into an animal called a VEBA,

or Voluntary Employees’ Beneficiary Association. It will also add somewhere

between $5.4 billion and $7 billion more to that VEBA down the road. That’s

a lot of money, but GM gets a lot of benefit, too: it has now managed to transfer

its enormous healthcare lilabilities off its own balance sheet and into the

hands of the VEBA. In fact, the VEBA will have so much money that, should it

be so inclined, it could buy GM outright.

Now the VEBA, according to the WSJ, is a union-run

trust – which means that the UAW now controls more than enough money

to buy GM.

Of course, the VEBA is designed to pay healthcare costs, not to run a car company.

So what it should probably be doing is trying to place its investments with

money managers mandated to beat some kind of healthcare-cost benchmark. And

the obvious way to do that would be to invest in hospitals, pharmaceutical companies,

health insurers and the like – rather than in the declining US auto sector.

On the other hand, there are obvious advantages to the union owning the company

– it would be very unlikely to go on strike, for starters. And there wouldn’t

be a conflict between shareholders wanting to maximize dividends and workers

wanting to maximize earnings.

Back in January 2006, Portfolio’s Jesse Eisinger was already thinking along

similar lines, writing the Long & Short column for the WSJ:

"There is almost a universal recognition that the union already owns

the majority of this enterprise. This crystallizes it," [Rod] Lache [of

Deutsche Bank] says.

The academic research suggests that employee-ownership plans work best if

employees are given some say in the management. It has rarely been tried on

a grand scale. United Airlines became majority owned by the employees, but

failed for myriad reasons having to do with an ill-designed plan and the industry’s


"Just owning a piece of the action without affecting the value has no

value," says Avner Ben-Ner, a professor of industrial relations at the

University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.

So in order to make up for the loss of benefits and the risk of stock ownership,

the plan would give GM workers board seats and thereby a say in running the


The employee-owner solution isn’t easy. Management and the union have very

prickly relations, which would make negotiations tough. There would be complicated

tax implications and legal hurdles requiring legions of lawyers and investment

bankers, and, probably, congressional intervention.

Lache’s plan back then was to give the union some of the equity in

the company, which would indeed cause problems. But if the union buys all

the equity in the company, I have a feeling that a lot of those problems go


GM’s workers are presumably proud of their work. How would they feel if given

an opportunity to own their company?

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