Chump Changed

The pay was low, but working for Ma Bell meant a worry-free retirement. Now Qwest is sending out the pension checks, and local retirees say they're getting the wrong number.

When Shirley Zach graduated from high school in the spring of 1948, she landed a job with Northwestern Bell. The pay was just 95 cents an hour, but being a telephone operator promised security. She learned the ropes quickly, donning a bulky headset and taking up a post at a "cord board," routing calls from Midwestern cities and towns to destinations all over the country.

The board consisted of two metal consoles: a boxy one for incoming calls that sat upright, and another that lay flat in front of it, which she used to direct the calls elsewhere. She would receive a call from, say, Springdale, Iowa, and hold the line while she used a rotary dial to call another operator in, perhaps, Duluth. When she got through, she'd complete the connection by plugging a line from the upright console into the other.

The job sounds simple, but Zach had to master all kinds of tricks in order to meet callers' needs. She learned, for instance, how to "challenge" a connection--squatting on a line when it was tied up and waiting for a a regional operator to become available--and to put a call to New York through Chicago first because it had a better chance of being answered if it came through a big-city switchboard.

"People always say, 'Okay, you were like that Lily Tomlin character'" from the Seventies television show Laugh-In, Zach says. "But I enjoyed taking the calls from all over. I enjoyed talking with people." She worked eight-hour shifts, in a room with 100 other operators. It was, she recalls, a culture of family and dedication that was rare in most companies; everyone took their obligations seriously. "We had to be there," she says emphatically. "We were the phone company."

In exchange for that dedication, every month Northwestern Bell put away money toward Zach's retirement. Zach was positive her nest egg would always be there. After all, the money came from Northwestern Bell's parent company, the monolithic American Telephone and Telegraph Company--known as AT&T and, less formally, Ma Bell. "You had a job for life," she explains. "You worked for that salary, thinking you would get benefits and job security."

AT&T was one of the first companies to offer such a pension, starting way back in 1913. That pension fund, AT&T and its subsidiaries always promised, was untouchable. "The trust funds are dedicated solely to the payment of service pensions and death benefits," promised an article in a 1974 issue of the company's Bell Telephone Magazine. "Not one dollar can be touched for any other purpose." Like her colleagues, Zach envisioned the fund as a kind of savings account that was earning interest for her. Whatever the future brought, there would be money for her when she retired. And the more interest the fund returned, the more money there would be.

Zach, who's now 70, put in more than 32 years with Northwestern Bell. As she sits in a booth at a New Hope McDonald's a few days after Christmas clad in a green Santa sweatshirt that contrasts festively with her reddish, semi-bouffant hairdo, the memories she relates about her career are pleasant. Though she took time off in the 1950s to raise four kids, mostly as a single mother after a divorce, the work allowed her a flexible schedule and gave her a stable environment. "I always say that my kids were raised by the telephone," she says. "I called them at home when I couldn't be there."

Zach stayed with the company until she retired in 1990. In 1980 she transferred to a job in Bell's Plymouth accounting office. That's where she was working in 1984, when federal officials concluded that her employer's parent corporation, AT&T, held too powerful a monopoly over telecommunications. AT&T was split into several smaller companies. Zach continued to report to work, but her employer became U S West. Six years later the office she worked in was closed, and Zach searched for a different job within the company. She decided to try her hand at her old vocation as an operator and sought a transfer. Despite her 32 years of service--22 of those as an operator--the new company required her to take a test in order to get the transfer. It didn't go well.

Instead of testing Zach on her proficiency at connecting customers' calls, U S West asked her a barrage of questions designed to probe her personality. "I flunked the written test," Zach recalls. "The questions didn't even pertain to being an operator. They took all the people questions out of it. I took it personally, because in the old days you went over the top to get somebody connected to somebody else." Insulted, Zach opted to retire five years earlier than she had planned. "I figured I could live on the retirement I was promised," she explains.

When her first monthly pension check arrived, Zach got her second unpleasant surprise. The check amounted to just over $700--far less than she had expected. She lives frugally in a no-frills apartment complex that abuts Highway 169 in New Hope, but even so, were it not for the social-security check she receives for roughly the same amount, she would have to find a full-time job. "There's only been one increase since I've retired, which amounted to a $10 raise [per month]," she says. "And there's no way you can justify that as taking care of an employee." Recently Zach learned that she won't get any more cost-of-living increases, nor would any increases in the cost of her health care be covered.

At its core, Zach's problem is that the company she receives her pension from is no longer Ma Bell. In the old days, the pension would have been just as untouchable as she and other employees were led to believe. Although it was technically a private company, AT&T was carefully watched by governmental agencies. There was, after all, only one phone company, and its rates had to be approved by the government. That meant lower take-home pay for the workers, yet it ensured that the nation's phone service would stay up and running.

But Zach didn't retire from AT&T. In 1984 her lifelong employer, Northwestern Bell, became U S West, and the rules changed. Instead of an untouchable investment account, the pension fund became one more column in the accounting ledger of a giant corporation that's focused on the demands of its stockholders, not the needs of its workers.

And then in June of last year, U S West was bought by Denver-based telecommunications company Qwest, a corporation that had absolutely nothing to do with Ma Bell's tradition of promising employees better benefits and retirement plans as a tradeoff for low pay. Some 48,000 retirees would now be dependent on Qwest's management of the pension fund. Many of them--including Zach--began to have their doubts that their pensions would remain intact after the $85 billion merger was completed. They were told there would be no increases in the size of their pension checks, nor would they get financial help if their health-care costs rose. Never mind that there was plenty of money in the retirement account.

In fact, at the time of the merger, there was a surplus of $5.7 billion in the $15 billion pension fund. Given the way the money had been handled by U S West, Qwest's refusal to commit to a more generous plan, and the weakness of the federal laws that protect people who depend on private pension funds, the retirees feared that their fund would be tapped to pay Qwest's operating expenses, bolstering the company's bottom line.

Another U S West retiree, Nelson Phelps, notes that there are plenty of reasons that a corporation would rather keep a surplus than distribute it to pensioners. "U S West made a lot of money very quickly through managing the pension smartly," he opines. "They look like a profitable company because the stock is valuable, and the stock options are there for current employees, but it's just paper profits to the retirees. All we are asking for is that they share the money they've made off the pension. We are just asking for a couple of crumbs."

It's impossible to say whether Minnesota's newest telephone-service company plans to do anything to resolve the concerns Zach shares with other U S West retirees. Qwest managers referred repeated interview requests for this article to the company's Twin Cities spokesman, who will say only that Qwest is administering the pension plan in accordance with the plan's rules and with federal law.

Shirley Zach knows that the merger, and Qwest's potential appropriation of the pension surplus, is legal. But she also knows that she has very little to show for her decades of service. She feels ruthlessly discarded by her former employer, one that never lived up to its promises of great retirement in exchange for company loyalty. "The money in that fund--it's ours," says Zach. "We worked for it and let the company keep it. They wouldn't have made the money they have now without us."

 

On a crisp weekday afternoon in December, about 70 former and current telecommunications employees mingle in the upstairs banquet room of Jax Cafe in northeast Minneapolis. The occasion is an annual holiday party, one that, for ten years, has drawn a tight-knit group of former Northwestern Bell employees, some of whom started their careers more than fifty years ago.

Concerned about their pensions, a group of those retirees nine years ago organized the U S West Retiree Association. It has become increasingly vocal and well organized in recent years, now boasting more than 45,000 members, who worked in such far-flung places as Washington, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona, as well as Minnesota and the four other Northwestern Bell states of Iowa, Nebraska, and the Dakotas.

The air of nostalgia suits the elegant 1920s décor of Jax, but as the party begins to wind down, melancholy sets in. Marian Hauck and Arnie Albrecht, both of whom have been active with the association, nestle into a couple of chairs at a large table in a corner of the banquet room. Both are reluctant to talk, for fear of claiming the spotlight personally, but it's clear that neither thinks anyone who worked for U S West and wasn't upper management is getting a fair shake.

"None of us ever dreamed that the telephone company wouldn't make good on its retirement promises," says Hauck, a former Northwestern Bell and U S West employee from St. Paul. "The culture then was that we gave things up for the company because we cared, and we believed whatever they told us when we walked out the door. Now employees don't care about the company. It's all a personal agenda now. And the company doesn't care about us, about the money we earned, and the handshake agreements that were made."

Hauck, who's wearing a pendant shaped like an old rotary-dial phone, is hesitant to give her age and tenure with the company, saying only that she started as a secretary in the early 1960s and put in more than 30 years. But she's as angry as Shirley Zach about the lack of respect she and others have received. "We were like a family, and that's why we all still get together," she says. "Now, after all the mergers, we feel like we've lost our identity."

Albrecht started selling phones to businesses for Northwestern Bell in 1954. By 1967 he was working with the Federal Communications Commission and the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission as a member of the company's regulatory department, a position he held until his retirement in 1990. His job was to help figure out how to keep customers' costs low and the level of service high. After all, there was nowhere else people could turn if they wanted phone service.

"Our approach in the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties was that we would go to the commission for rate increases, and when they gave us one, that would go into the pensions," Albrecht explains. "The ratepayers of the state paid that so we could attract good telephone workers." But now, he says ruefully, the money paid by Minnesota customers over the years is going to people who never served Minnesotans.

Albrecht became active in the retirees' association two years ago. "My motivation was ethical, when I found out the company was using the fund for purposes other than paying pensions," he says. "The question is, for successive takeovers, Who is getting our pensions?"

In 1983 the U.S. government decided that the phone company violated antitrust laws: AT&T controlled the nation's long-distance service, and its subsidiaries--regional companies like Mountain Bell, Bell Atlantic, and Pacific Bell--had a lock on local telephone markets. In 1984 a federal judge ordered AT&T to spin off the subsidiaries (known collectively as the "Baby Bells"), whereupon Northwestern Bell became a part of a new 14-state company called U S West. The Ma Bell breakup touched off a race for dominance in a newly deregulated long-distance market and, since then, in myriad new telecommunications venues, from local and cellular to the Internet, and even cable television. And whereas the Ma Bell monopoly had its rates set by the government agencies that represented its captive customers, the new companies were governed by shareholders, whose primary concern was--and continues to be--a profitable bottom line.

From the retirees' perspective, things began to change almost immediately. For starters, in 1986, the pension fund was healthy enough that U S West was no longer obligated to pay into it; the interest the fund was accruing was more than enough to keep it solvent. In fact, over the years, it began to generate a surplus, one that by 1999 had ballooned to $5.7 billion. The company was not obligated by law to maintain the surplus, and indeed, U S West officials had no intention of doing so. And in the meantime, with one small exception, U S West ceased granting cost-of-living increases to its retirees and stopped paying price hikes for health care.

The company also began dipping into the pension fund to pay for the plan's administrative costs. When a retirees' group complained to the company in 1994, U S West responded by editing the rules governing the plan and eliminating the restriction. Only after a subsequent class-action lawsuit was settled did the company back down; in the end U S West agreed to return $8 million to the fund. The company did not, however, rescind the rule changes.

In 1997 John L. Jarvis, a U S West retiree living in Mesa, Arizona, initiated a class-action suit charging that U S West had deleted provisions in the original pension-plan document and had improperly used pension fund assets to benefit employees who retired from a cable-television company U S West bought in 1996. In addition, the suit charged, U S West had "planned to use $60 million in Plan assets to pay retiree medical expenses"--money that had long come out of the company's operating expenses, not the pension fund.

The lead counsel on the Jarvis lawsuit, Denver-based attorney Curtis Kennedy, was no stranger to U S West. In all, Kennedy has been the attorney of record in 45 suits filed against the company. He won all of his cases, until he took on the Jarvis suit. In Denver in August 1999 U.S. District Court Judge Edward Nottingham ruled in favor of U S West. In Kennedy's view, the judge interpreted federal laws as allowing companies to change pension-plan policies on a whim. "Judge Nottingham ruled that U S West could modify the pension plan, [and] take out language prohibiting monies to be used on medical costs," Kennedy explained in a retirees' association newsletter in August 1999. "Last year the company took out $60 million to pay retiree medical costs. No doubt the company will take the same action in 1999 and future years....

"Considering how the company has ignored the needs of its retirees during the 1990s," the attorney continued, "I have long suspected that the U S West plan is to hoard the pension plan surplus--without regard to past practices of regular pension increases--and let the surplus build up to a massive amount that could be used by the company for non-pension purposes."

 

In 1963 Ohio-based White Motor Corp. took over Minnesota-Moline, a farm-equipment manufacturer with plants in Hopkins and Minneapolis. As part of the purchase, White Motor inherited the Moline pension plan. In 1972 the new company closed its Minneapolis plant and attempted to eliminate the underfunded pension. The union that had represented workers at Moline managed to keep the plan in effect through 1974--when the Minnesota Legislature passed a law requiring full funding of pension benefits whenever an employer ceases to operate a place of employment or a pension plan. In 1978 the matter made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which agreed with the union that White Motor was obliged to continue the Minnesota-Moline pension plan.

In the meantime Congress had gone to work on the issue of protecting employee-benefit rights, noting in September 1974, in a 200-page law known as the Employment Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA, that the "continued well-being and security of millions of employees and their dependents are directly affected by these plans; that they are affected with national interest; that they have become an important factor affecting the stability of employment and successful development of industrial relations; [and] that they have become an important factor in commerce." The law's main purpose was to stop companies such as White Motor from buying other businesses and eliminating their pension plans. ERISA requires employers to generate financial reports and to disclose information such as pension assets, participation in and payment into pensions by more than one company, and minimum-funding standards.

But former Bell workers and other advocates for retirees complain that ERISA fails to address many of the problems that plague pensions now, 26 years after the law was passed. The law doesn't deal with many health benefits or cost-of-living increases, does not require employers to continue to fund solvent pensions, and, most confusing, does not say what should occur when a retirement fund accrues a surplus. Under federal law, in other words, Qwest is under no obligation to do anything other than to continue making the Ma Bell pension payments.

Equally disconcerting is the fact that virtually every time the law has been tested in a courtroom, it has been interpreted differently, and in the narrowest way possible. In each case, the retirees maintain, the law has been read as too vague to stop an employer from rewriting the company's pension rules.

Dick Johnson, head of the Minneapolis Central Labor Union, remembers the roots of ERISA very well. "The Minnesota-Moline situation made it a national issue, and when we sought protection here for that pension, it went on to change things," he recalls. "The whole thing is much bigger than U S West and various Bell operations. This is a multi-employer issue."

Sitting in an office he still keeps on the fifth floor of the Labor Centre building in downtown Minneapolis, Johnson is dwarfed by three large, framed paintings on one wall of Floyd B. Olson, Minnesota's Farmer-Labor Party governor during the 1930s. On the wall behind him is a painting depicting a lineman atop a telephone pole in a snowstorm. Johnson spent 40 years with Northwestern Bell and U S West, becoming a telephone technician, and then working as a union representative. In 1980 he was elected president of the local chapter of the Communications Workers of America. By the time he retired in 1996, Johnson was head of the Central Labor Union, the local federation of labor groups.

Johnson graduated from Central High School in Minneapolis and began working at a local grocery-store chain in the 1950s. In 1955, at the age of 19, he took a job with Northwestern Bell collecting the change in pay phones, gathering nickels and dimes around the metro area. He had to take a pay cut from $100 a week to $46 a week when he went to work for the phone company, but he thought it was a savvy decision. "The supermarkets were always coming and going, but the telephone company was going to stay," he says. "We were working for what they referred to as a deferred-wage pension."

Johnson notes that back in 1974 when Congress passed ERISA, no one imagined that pension funds might accrue surpluses. But when the red-hot stock market of the Nineties changed that, the retirees assumed that under the spirit of the law, all of the money earned by the fund would be used to beef up benefits. "The company used to negotiate cost-of-living increases [for pensioners] every couple years on good faith," he adds, noting that there was no legal obligation to do so. "But it just quit." That same renewed fascination with the stock market made U S West more anxious than ever to appear profitable: "A surplus shows growth, so why would they pay it out?"

Mary Ellen Signorille, a pension attorney for the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), says that ERISA is so complex that after 20 years studying the law, even she still isn't entirely clear on its provisions. "A surplus is more dicey than usual pension questions," she explains. "In the late Eighties and Nineties, we were seeing many companies with surpluses, and more pension plans being terminated. There are ways to circumvent certain parts of pensions without taking money out directly. Morally we could talk about it all day, but legally it's okay."

In the aftermath of mergers, Signorille notes, it's not uncommon for companies to reconfigure their pension plans, trading monthly payments for cash balances, stock options, and 401(k) benefits. She has seen the questions the Qwest retirees pose pop up repeatedly at many older blue-chip companies, such as GTE and Lockheed. "ERISA has not afforded the type of protection that people thought it would afford to individuals," Signorille concludes. Which is especially troubling, because no one else--not the court system, not the local regulators who oversee companies like Qwest--has been willing to interfere with the pensions of private companies: "It becomes an issue of a private employer with a private pension."

 

Shortly after the U S West-Qwest merger was announced in November 1999, the chairman of the U S West Retiree Association, 72-year-old Jim Norby, wrote a letter to Joe Nacchio, who would be chairman and CEO of Qwest should the merger go through. Leaders of the retirees' association had already been talking to U S West officials about the pension; Norby began inviting Qwest managers to the meetings.

The merger needed to gain approval from Minnesota's Public Utilities Commission, the state agency that oversees telephone, electric, and gas service. The five-member board of gubernatorial appointees has the power to bar a company from operating in Minnesota, to set its rates, and to order certain changes in company policy. The panel had the authority to stop the merger, or--at least by the retirees' lights--to order Qwest to make promises concerning its pension fund. The members of the retirees' association saw the process as an opportunity to push the new conglomerate to accede to some of their demands.

"We were afraid that if the merger were approved, this treatment of the pension would continue," explains Norby. "Our position was that there is an obligation for the company--whatever company--to pay us our pension first, take care of our health benefits, and give us a cost-of-living increase out of our pension fund, and not to use it for anything else."

Weeks before the merger was to be approved in Minnesota, Qwest abruptly cut off all contact with the retirees. Greg Merz, an attorney with the Minneapolis law firm Gray Plant Mooty who represents the association, believes Qwest was focused only on getting permission to take over U S West. "I think they were just interested in looking good for merger approval," Merz charges. "Once it looked like they could make concessions elsewhere to get merger approval, they left us in the cold."

In June the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission held its second series of hearings on the merger. The experience was frustrating for Merz, who had gone into the process with a simple mission. "We wanted to investigate the issue: What would Qwest do with all this pension money?" he says. "True, Qwest hasn't changed anything with the pensions yet. But they have yet to tell us they won't." Commission members brushed the issue aside. They said that although they'd like to see Qwest make some concessions to the retirees, such issues were outside their purview. When the merger was approved on June 6 of last year, all Merz and his clients emerged with was a promise from Qwest to report on its plans every 90 days and not to eliminate or reduce any pension payments until 2004--something that's already guaranteed under ERISA.

"During the commission hearings, this got painted as the retirees just wanting more pension money," says John O'Brien, a St. Paul native who lobbied on behalf of Northwestern Bell and U S West from the late 1970s until 1998 but who now works as a spokesman for the retirees' association.

O'Brien disputes the notion that the state regulators' hands were tied when it came to protecting the retirement plan. "This was a regulated monopoly for years, and [the PUC] controlled what went into the pension funds based on rate increases they approved," he argues. "When there was not an increase, we took pay cuts. When there was, we put even more money into the pension fund. We had to keep employees because we were the only phone company. And now they are saying they don't have jurisdiction over the pension? They have a good history of regulating this company fairly. Their hands are all over this money already."

Ed Garvey has been a member of the commission since 1997. He remembers hearing Merz out at the hearings. "In the context of those meetings, they sought commission input about fears about the use of the pension," Garvey recalls. "We felt this was not really the jurisdiction of the commission. We didn't want to get involved, because of ERISA."

Garvey, who once headed the commission, says the debate about the pension fund was irreparably complicated by the AT&T breakup and the mergers and spin-offs thereof. "There were promises on that pension that U S West ultimately didn't want to keep," he says. "The question is now, six months after the Qwest merger: What's the fate of the pension right now?"

The pension is intact and being administered fairly and legally, replies Qwest spokesman Bryce Hallowell. "Our general feeling is that the PUC heard all of the facts and approved the merger," says Hallowell. "People have looked at this numerous times and found no problem. We have an ample body of law that we have to comply with, and that does not leave anybody out in the cold. Qwest is living up to every aspect of the pension agreement, and that means the spirit of the law as well as the letter. To suggest otherwise is irresponsible."

In September, three months after the merger was approved, Qwest CEO Joe Nacchio finally provided the retirees with some clues to the future of the pension. "Qwest has no plans to terminate the U S West pension plan," Nacchio wrote in a letter to U S West Retiree Association chairman Jim Norby. "Qwest will continue to provide employee and retiree benefits from the plan as permitted by law." Payments would never be decreased, he promised, but "the U S West pension plan does not call for and the company does not plan to provide a cost-of-living adjustment for participants."

 

A stout man with a gray buzz cut, Joe Pugaczewski probably knows the phone company as well as anyone. In 1951, after graduating from Johnson High School on St. Paul's East Side, he went to work for a subsidiary of AT&T for $1.12 an hour. He installed telephone switchboards for big businesses like Northern States Power, and he repaired switches and circuit boards in "central offices"--little buildings filled with circuitry and cords that are still found scattered around the Twin Cities. During the Korean War he did a stint in the navy repairing airplane cockpits, then went back to work for Northwestern Bell. He remembers hearing the pops and crackles caused by the electrical impulses that carried conversations from rotary-dial phones to switchboards. He probably handled--literally--some of the same calls as retired operator Shirley Zach.

And just like Zach, Pugaczewski remembers that people went to work for the phone company for one primary reason: security. "In those days you'd work and pay for exactly what you needed," he says. "There was no big income. We had to work for every little benefit; we had to fight to make sure our benefits and our pension were in place."

Having logged 48 years on the job, Pugaczewski will probably retire on a pension that's more comfortable than Zach's. Nonetheless, he plans to work for as long as he can. If Qwest suddenly decides to treat its pensioners better than its predecessor did, "I'll retire," he jokes. "But if they treat me bad, I'll stick around."

Pugaczewski is already active in the retirees' association. "I can take care of myself, as long as I'm healthy," he explains. "But I've got to remember the people who can't, the people who are living on $500 a month."

Turned away by the court system and state policymakers and left in the cold by the federal law that was supposed to protect their rights, the association earlier this month took one last shot at persuading local officials to remedy their situation. On January 4 Pugaczewski and some 80 other association members crammed into the PUC's hearing room at the Metro Square Building in downtown St. Paul for yet another hearing. Commissioner Garvey wasn't there, a fact that upset the retirees, who had perceived him to be sympathetic during their talks over the years.

The association's attorney, Greg Merz, spoke first. The PUC should reconsider its decision not to put restrictions on what Qwest can do with the pension fund, he argued. "We want to point out that we didn't know the future [when the merger was approved], Merz said. "We know the future now, and the concerns we expressed were dead-on."

Commissioner Greg Scott was unmoved. "What difference does that make to me?" he asked sternly. "Is it illegal, what Qwest is doing?"

How much of a surplus was in the pension fund? the commissioners asked. At the time of the merger, the figure was $5.7 billion, a Qwest attorney replied. At the start of 2001 the number hovered around $4.5 billion. Where had the $1.2 billion gone? the retirees demanded to know. Qwest's response: They'd have to wait for the release of the 2000 annual report in order to find out. (Hallowell says the money was lost in the recent stock-market decline.)

A few minutes later, Joe Pugaczewski lost patience with the process. He strode to a microphone at the front of the room. "After all the mergers and pension transfers we've gone through," he addressed Greg Scott, "I have to ask you, Commissioner: Would you want to be in business with a company like this? Can you see why we are worried?

"Look, you can put fertilizer in the garden and call it scent," Pugaczewski concluded, "but to me it's still manure."

In the end, the commissioners agreed that the retirees had a valid point. But as one of them put it, "What can we do about it now?" The regulators voted 3-1 to leave the merger exactly as it stands.

The only place left to take the fight, Norby says now, is Congress. Of course, he notes, U S West has expended a lot of energy in recent years lobbying that august body to ensure that the climate remains favorable to large employers.

Last year a "senior senator" from the Midwest told Norby exactly how high the stakes were from U S West's perspective. "The halls of Congress were stacked like cordwood with lobbyists prepared to take on anyone who tried to tamper with the current ERISA law," he says the lawmaker told him.

U S West spent more than $7 million lobbying Congress in 1997 and 1998. During those two years, the communications and electronics industries spent more--$400 million--trying to influence policy than every other industry except for the financial sector. And according to federal campaign finance data, U S West was the eighth-biggest spender in its industry. During the same time period, the industry gave almost $55 million to congressional candidates, of which U S West ponied up a tidy $1 million.

The association, by contrast, doesn't have a war chest. But Norby says what it can do is place a retiree lobbyist in each congressional district. "So far there's been nothing but legal fees and heartbreak," he concedes. "But we have reloaded and decided that our last foray is through legislation. This is a literal misuse of a pension fund, and we can't win in the courts."

Norby knows how hard it is to convince official Washington to make sweeping changes in policy. But the retirees are prepared to try, he insists. "We are tired of companies that can literally hide behind ERISA," he goes on. "We have, however, been told that we'd better have very deep pockets."

 

Research assistance for this article was provided byCity Pages interns Natasha Uspensky and Ben Ganje.

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