NOT long ago, before the accounting scandals at Enron, WorldComand other companies,
workers often saw themselves as management's best buddies. Gone was the old, us-against-them
mentality in which workers viewed C.E.O.'s as robber barons intent on squeezing
them for every last dollar.
In its place was a new world in which workers, with their stock options and
401(k) plans loaded with company stock, saw themselves as allied with management,
not opposed to it. Pointing to the dot-com phenomenon, management theorists talked
of a New Economy paradigm in which workers would link arms with executives because
they were just as eager as their bosses to maximize company profits and stock
The notion of worker exploitation was largely forgotten, at least among white-collar
and high-technology employees, because it seemed so Old Economy. Corporate executives
fostered an egalitarian atmosphere by using the same cafeterias and parking lots
as their subordinates. They embraced an inclusive vocabulary in which workers
were partners, associates, even fellow entrepreneurs, and to make workers identify
with them, managers rewarded their new partners with stock options, bonuses and
discount stock purchase plans.
"In the 90's, half of American households became investors, so the line between
being an employee and an investor began to blur," former Labor Secretary Robert
B. Reich said. "People were happy because it looked as if a rapidly rising tide
was lifting all boats." Workers hardly seemed to worry about the need for workplace
protections. With the economy and Wall Street booming, it seemed silly to fret
about layoffs. Workers were busy boasting about, not worrying about, the size
of their retirement nest eggs.
To this new species of investor-worker, unions seemed irrelevant. Unions made
little headway as they sought to lure workers by promising the basic protections
coveted in decades past, like health coverage and defined-benefit pensions. Union
membership remained flat even as the 1990's boom created more than 15 million
jobs. For many workers, the collective approach seemed anachronistic because they
were confident that management would protect them or they could protect themselves.
This logic seemed unassailable during the boom. But the paradigm began to
crack with the high-tech bust and resulting layoffs, and crumbled with the recession
and the Enron-led wave of scandals. At Enron, 4,200 workers were laid off; at
Cara Alcantar, who accumulated 1,600 stock options in her four years at WorldCom,
said she was naïve to identify with WorldCom's chief executive. "I felt on the
same side as Bernie Ebbers, on the cutting edge of technology," she said. "I worked
extremely hard, and I couldn't imagine layoffs would ever happen to me.'
But on July 3, she was laid off. Now her stock options are worthless, WorldCom
says it cannot pay her severance benefits, and the half of her retirement savings
that were in WorldCom stock are virtually worthless. "Not only were they not looking
out for our interests," Ms. Alcantar said, "they were so greedy they made sure
the money went into their pockets."
Before, she said, joining a union had never crossed her mind, but now she
says she wishes WorldCom were unionized. With a union, she says, she might have
had a defined-benefit pension that, unlike her vaporized 401(k) plan, would have
guaranteed her benefits even after the stock market plunged. Labor leaders say
that if Enron or WorldCom were unionized, unions would have won better pensions
and severance benefits for the workers and, through their prying, might have forced
the companies to be more honest about their books.
"We're seeing a real waking up across the nation because millions of workers
are seeing that their economic futures are far less secure than they had been
led to believe," said Harley Shaiken, a specialist in labor issues at the University
of California at Berkeley.
A SURVEY released last week by Peter D. Hart Associates found that 66 percent
of workers said they trusted their employers just some or not much at all. Such
numbers, labor experts say, suggest that the nation may have reached a watershed
in which workers conclude that they need collective protections to safeguard them
from predatory executives and economic downturns.
It is unclear whether a deus ex machina will materialize to rescue the beleaguered
workers. The most likely candidates are Washington, which seems uninterested,
and organized labor, which is weak.
Since the Enron scandal, President Bush and Congress have done little to protect
workers even as they have rushed to protect investors. That is a far cry from
1963, when the Studebaker automobile company went under and more than 4,000 workers
lost their pensions. In response, Congress, with a Republican senator, Jacob K.
Javits, taking the lead, passed legislation that created strict pension protections.
The post-Enron Congress has shunned even modest protections like rules to
require companies to make promised severance payments or to let workers elect
representatives to the board of their 401(k) plans.
The Hart survey showed that workers are warming to unions, with 50 percent
of nonunion workers saying they wanted to join a union, the highest level in two
It was labor's clout in Congress and collective bargaining that created the
nation's system of worker protections, including the 40-hour week, pensions, health
coverage and job safety rules. But unions are weak, representing less than 10
percent of the private-sector work force, down from 35 percent in the 1950's.
Unions have been notably unsuccessful in wooing workers from New Economy industries,
The A.F.L.-C.I.O.'s president, John J. Sweeney, said he saw a pendulum swing
in favor of collective protections. "One Enron worker told me, `We trusted our
employer, and liked our job, but when they threw us on on the street, we lost
all trust,' " Mr. Sweeney said. "A lot of workers are saying to themselves, `The
same thing can happen to me.' "
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company