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PERSPECTIVE ON PENSIONS : Maxwell’s Raids Look Penny-Ante : Employers emptied U.S. workers’ retirement funds by $22 billion in the 1980s--and they didn’t have to hide it.

<i> Barbara Garson is the author of "The Electronic Sweatshop" (Penguin), the play "MacBird" and the play-in-progress "Security" (which has a lot to say about pensions)</i>

The only thing lower than the man who waters the workers’ beer is the man who drains their retirement fund. I tried to visualize what actually transpired when Robert Maxwell siphoned more than half a billion dollars worth of assets from the pension funds of his British companies.

What do you carry the assets out in, and who do you sell them to? If a man offered me a television out of the back of a car, I’d know something was fishy. Especially if he didn’t have the original box. But apparently there is no original box for the stocks and bonds that Maxwell peddled to banks. And the bankers say that they had no reason to ask if he really owned them.

But how did he get the securities out? I pictured a wheelbarrow brigade at midnight. An acquaintance who’s more knowledgeable about finance says it could have been done with a phone call. “When the man shows up from Barclays, give him another hundred million worth of the ones with the gold edges.” Whatever the exact scenario, I’m sure Maxwell did it with pizazz. But in this country, there are less dramatic, more efficient ways to make workers’ pensions disappear.

In the course of the 1980s, more than $22 billion was removed from American pension funds, without wheelbarrows. When investments were yielding high returns, employers declared that the pension plans were “over-funded” and took the money out. Is that legal? Absolutely. Sometimes the “excess” was used to buy other companies. More often it worked the other way. The large pension fund attracted circling takeover artists who swooped down to buy the company, drain the “excess” and pay themselves enormous fees. The most daring of these entrepreneurs would shut the firm down and reopen the next day without a pension plan. That’s legal, too, if you do it right.

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Another legal way to shrink pensions is to change the terms. “From now on, instead of $20 a month per year of service, you’ll get $10.” It’s more common, however, to change from a plan that provides a set benefit on retirement to one that guarantees only a certain level of contribution, leaving the benefit to the mercies of today’s investment market.

Another pension vanishing trick is to declare that the plan covers only full-time, permanent workers, and from now on, everyone but me and my son-in-law is a temp. In the last decade, contingent jobs--temp typists, janitorial consultants, adjunct professors and piecework professionals of all kinds--have increased faster than what we used to call regular jobs. So the bulk of new hires not only can’t be sure of $400 a month when they retire, they can’t be sure of $400 a week while they work.

But the simplest way to make pensions disappear is not to offer them. After all, a pension isn’t a right. It’s something you negotiate, usually through a union. Or it’s something the boss offers, voluntarily, to keep you with the firm.

But these days there generally isn’t any union, and people without jobs at all are lining up for yours. So pension funds are vanishing faster than even a Maxwell can electronically transfer them. At least his workers still had pension funds to steal.

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The nastiest thing about the great pension rip-off--not Maxwell’s puny half-billion heist--is the sanctimonious rhetoric that the perpetrators hurl. “From now on, employees will have to take responsibility for their own retirement,” we’re told. “They can no longer depend on a paternalistic company.”

When investments were doing well, the retirement fund (with its “excess”) was found to belong to the employer, not the employees. Now that things are bad, “here’s a few bucks; go invest for your future on your own. It will teach you self-reliance.”

The truth is that no matter how we save and invest, very few of us will be able to retire with the kind of secure pensions our parents enjoyed. And we’re asked to accept this insecurity as though it were good for us, like exercise.

But let’s give Robert Maxwell his due.

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When he died, he was suffering the same kind of financial insecurity (albeit on a yacht) that he was willing to inflict upon his workers. I don’t suppose that will be much comfort to his Daily Mirror pensioners. But at least they won’t have to listen to lectures on self-reliance from executives with golden parachutes.


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