Labor day message: CEOs should take a back seat for a change
Tom Summers
September 2002

Enron may be based in Houston, and WorldCom calls Mississippi home, but as we celebrate Labor Day, it's clear the nation's corporate scandals have rocked Gainesville, too.

Anyone in this city with a 401(K) plan or a college fund knows that book cooking and corporate blind eyes have cost working people a bundle.

The problem, ultimately, isn't that Enron and Worldcom and Arthur Andersen broke the rules. The problem is that they, and other major corporations like them, made the rules.

These big corporations and the lawmakers they support have created a system of in's and out's in the nation's regulatory laws that give corporations free rein to shift people's hard-earned money around, hiding losses while still looking pretty to Wall Street investors.

Congress has passed a bill addressing accounting reforms and conflicts of interest. Yet, the bill does nothing to keep top corporations from evading taxes by moving their mailbox to Bermuda or requiring CEOs to account for their scandalously high pay in a way that's fair and honest.

And nobody did anything for the workers victimized by corporate abuses.

And corporate wrong-doing doesn't stop on Wall Street--it carries right on down to Main Street USA, including Main Street and University Avenue.

From their perches of privilege, it has become easier and easier for CEOs to lay off workers, cut health and retirement benefits, slash pay and shut down American plants altogether and start up abroad.

In fact, battery-assembly plants and chemical companies (to name just two industries), right here in Alachua County have threatened workers with slashed benefits, lower wages, downsized work forces and the movement of entire operations overseas and across the border.

When employees see the writing on the wall and try to join together in a union to win safety, security and a voice on the job, employers routinely violate their freedom to do so.

A quarter of employers illegally fire workers and half threaten to shut down--though less than 1 percent of firms where workers form a union then close. More than 90 percent use mandatory, closed-door meetings to "convince" workers to vote against improving their lives with a union, according to a congressionally funded study by Kate Bronfenbrenner.

It happened right here in Gainesville, where workers at a major chemical processing plant tried to form a union because of poor work conditions.

Their employer brought in "the pro's" from human resources to have employee meetings, one-on-one interviews, etc. and proceeded to tell them how bad unions were and how fast the entire plant would close down if employees ever voted for union representation.

All this, when all the employees wanted was representation to ensure a guarantee of better work conditions. And all this at a time when we're approaching the one-year anniversary of Sept. 11--a time when America lauded working people as heroes.

Now more than ever, it's clear that there's a gulf between corporate values and those of average working men and women. After all, who would you rather have in your camp at the time of crisis, a firefighter or a CEO, one of the construction workers who cleaned up the rubble or someone like Scott Sullivan, WorldCom's one-time chief financial officer?

So why is it that our nation keeps putting working people's issues on the back burner?

Congress refused to roll a prescription drug benefit into Medicare. Social Security and workers' retirements are under attack. Unemployment is at an eight-year high, and Congress is not even considering extending benefits beyond the small extension they granted almost six months ago.

In addition, even as workers keep our nation running smoothly and securely in thousands of ways--as bag screeners, nurses, firefighters and more--the administration is trying to keep workers from having a voice through a union in the new Homeland Security Department. They're also stalling on bargaining rights for airport screeners. Such attacks are outrageous.

It's high time that America began to treat its heroes with respect.

Starting with Labor Day, let's make sure working people in Gainesville and all across the nation have their voices heard and their futures secured--and CEOs can just take a back seat.

Tom Summers is president of the North Central Florida Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO. This editorial also appeared in the Gainesville Sun on September 2.

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