WESTERHOLD: Pension promises in an era of bankruptcy

Register managing editor The story on the top of the front page Thursday -- about the potential for
Matt Westerhold
May 24, 2010

Register managing editor

The story on the top of the front page Thursday -- about the potential for GM retirees to lose a portion of their monthly pensions and all of their health benefits -- could have huge impact across the five-county region.

It also seems like the story nobody wants to tell, and nobody wants to hear.

But it's very similar to what happened in Northeast Ohio about five years ago, when LTV Steel and the steel mill in Lorain both went bankrupt. Back then, the federal Pension Benefit and Guaranty Corp. took over the pension funds at both companies and nothing was ever the same for hundreds of families.

One of those union steelworkers told me his story at about that time. And it is a story I never forgot, but never had the opportunity to tell. Until now.

He had the stature of a working man, with big calloused hands and a lively disposition. We started talking when we were both in the buffet line at a wedding reception.

"My wife and I just rolled in from Florida," he said. "Wasn't sure we were going to make it in time. But we're home now."

Before we were finished in the food line he'd told me he was a retired steelworker and he and his wife had been traveling the country for a year or more in their motorhome.

"That's great that you're able to travel. I've always thought I would do that some day," I said.

We sat back down and began eating and talking. His wife was not with him, he explained, because she wasn't feeling well and was scheduled for another round of chemotherapy next month. He spoke of her with affection -- and a certain sadness he tried hard to hide.

Traveling was great, he said, and he was grateful in life. But this was not how they planned to live out retirement.

"I worked in that steel mill for 35 years. Don't regret one day," he said. "They cut my pension by $500 a month and took away all the benefits. We pay $1,700 a month for health insurance. This isn't how it was supposed to be."

"Who cut your pension?" I asked.

"The government ... when they took over LTV ..." he replied. "My government."

When the federal government took over the LTV pension funds, the contractual promises of retirement income and health benefits between steelworkers and LTV were all but voided, replaced by just a percentage of what was promised and no health benefits.

"We have to have the insurance," he said. "I'd die right here if I could make her cancer go away and give her our home back. That's all I want. Just for her, not for me. Just one day back in our home."

Man tears welled up in his eyes, and in mine, too. Two men cried without a tear dropping, but the moment was over almost as soon as it had begun. We parted after finishing our meals and I tried later to get his full name and contact information so I could have a reporter contact him. But he must have left early because I couldn't find him.

I worked for the (Elyria) Chronicle-Telegram at that time and we were working on stories about the impact of the shutdown at the Lorain steel mill. At one time the mill was the largest employer in Lorain County, by far, with thousands of employees.

By the time of the last bankruptcy, the hourly employee count was in the hundreds. When the steel mill emerged from bankruptcy, the same management staff was in charge.

But the hourly workers -- the men and women who did the hard work -- weren't so lucky. Good reporting led to the discovery of internal company e-mails that clearly showed the management team was targeting the "walking wounded" among the work force. Any employee who had suffered any earlier injury on the job that required special work conditions to accommodate those injuries was on management 's "get rid of" list.

The whole experience of those two bankruptcies was a real eye-opener. I hope the hundreds of retirees and hundreds more who want to retire from the old New Departure/Delphi plant -- where the salaried retirees might take more of a hit than the hourly retirees -- and Lear in Huron and all the other automotive related jobs and pension funds, don't get the dirty end of the stick the way it happened back then.

But that might be exactly what happens.