EVERETT, Wash. -- I work operating industrial machinery at a paper mill that
is owned by a global corporation. My mill was built in the 1920's, when the stock
market was soaring, F. Scott Fitzgerald was writing about the rich and Babe Ruth
was hitting home runs for the Yankees. I get paid by the hour and do not understand
the markets. I do not belong to a country club or own a suit. I just want to work
at the mill until I retire.
My mill has survived the Depression, a world war, even a couple minor earthquakes.
But I worry if it can survive Ken Lay. Small investors like me — encouraged by
politicians, financial advisers and CNBC — poured our retirement savings into
the stock market. Now we are dismayed that the corporate captains have abandoned
accountability while the crew sinks with the ship.
Perhaps I am looking for excuses for the recent poor performance of my 401(k)
plan, but I wonder if the market is fair. In 2001, the average chief executive's
pay was more than $11 million, according to Pearl Meyer & Partners, an executive-compensation
consulting firm. Executive pay has been climbing steadily for the past two decades
and has outpaced employee pay. Two decades ago, C.E.O.'s were paid about 40 times
more than the average hourly employee; now they make more than 500 times the wage
of the average hourly employee.
Last year the C.E.O. of my company made 592 times more than I did. I wonder
if that makes me underpaid or the C.E.O. overpaid. Recently management told hourly
employees at my mill to make concessions or risk losing our jobs. We made the
concessions last autumn, but last spring the C.E.O. received a stock "gift" worth
This isn't capitalism, it's avarice. I am not naïve. I know about the robber
barons of the late 19th century and others throughout history who have abused
the system. But never has the gap between executives and employees been greater.
This disparity threatens the capitalist system itself. When employees make concessions
while executives take bonuses, the bonds of common purpose are broken.
Contrast this with the Marine Corps, which is structured so that enlisted
personnel and officers work together for a common purpose. The Marine Corps commandant
runs an organization with 172,600 men and women, oversees an annual budget of
some $13.2 billion and is paid $163,177 annually — just 13 times more than the
pay of a new private in boot camp. The system is successful because of a tradition
of shared risks and rewards.
All employees want their company to succeed, and I am proud to work where
I do. I imagine my concern about my company's share price is as great as my C.E.O.'s;
a portion of my 401(k) is in company stock. I recognize my job depends upon my
company making a profit.
But I wonder if corporate executives appreciate the role workers play in their
success. Free enterprise is a system of risks and rewards. As it now stands, employees
suffer most of the risks, while executives enjoy most of the rewards.
Robert Hemsley is a member of the Association of Western Pulp and Paper
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company