August 01, 2002

HERE'S A CORRUPT INDUSTRY screwing retirees out of their pensions:

What if you worked for a company for 30 years - say, starting in 1967 and ending in 1997 - and then realized the company had never paid into your pension fund? You'd be pretty steamed.

That's what happened to Sam Moore from the famous R&B group Sam & Dave. He had hits with Atlantic Records, which is part of Time Warner, like "Soul Man," "Hold On I'm Coming" and dozens of others.

Even though new hits stopped coming, the old ones kept selling. He figured that when he reached retirement, Atlantic would have been paying his pension into his union, which is called AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists).

When Moore applied for his pension, he was told that he had benefits coming to him. What a relief, he thought. Then he got the bad news. AFTRA was all set to pay him a whopping $67 a month. This is the same AFTRA that now boasts a $1.2 billion surplus.

That $67 figure came not from the money Sam thought he was getting from Atlantic, but from radio and television appearances he'd made over the years. It turned out that Atlantic had never paid one dime into his pension fund. Nothing. Nada.

Think of all the times you've heard "Soul Man" played on the radio, or in clubs and restaurants. Sam Moore was not getting paid for any of it.

Push has come to shove, though. Moore, along with two dozen or so other artists - including some who've passed away - sued AFTRA and the record companies for their proper compensation.

It turns out, by the way, that you don't have to be a member of AFTRA to qualify. If you recorded songs for a record company that was a signatory of AFTRA - which means all of them - you qualify for a pension. And not just black artists or those from the '60s. The Eagles, for example, are as mad as Sam Moore about what's happened.

Last month, AFTRA tried to push a settlement through in the ongoing case. They offered to pay each of the plaintiffs $100,000 apiece, and let the rest of the recording artists twist in the wind.

But many of the plaintiffs, including Moore, objected, and the judge took them seriously. Moore figured that he was probably owed about a million bucks. So the judge told all sides to go back to the drawing board and start over.

Tomorrow, all the attorneys involved in the case - representing AFTRA, its pension fund, the recording industry organization RIAA, the record labels, the plaintiffs, etc. - will meet in Scottsdale, Ariz., to start negotiations. It should be interesting since one law firm, Proskauer Rose, represents both the AFTRA fund and the Recording Industry Association of America.

The record labels are united on one front: They don't want to have pay about 20,000 different artists 30 years of back pension and health benefits.

So why aren't Tom Daschle and Dick Gephardt calling for hearings and legislation to rake these crooks over the coals? Aren't they friends of the working people? Or are they just the tools of a different bunch of fatcats? And why isn't the union doing more (er, doing anything)?

Some questions answer themselves, don't they?