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Corporate scandals souring workers' views of executives


Before the accounting scandals at Enron, WorldCom and other companies, workers often saw themselves as management's best buddies. Gone was the old "us-against-them" mentality in which workers viewed chief executives 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, saw themselves as allied with management. Management theorists talked of a New Economy paradigm in which workers would link arms with executives because they were as eager as their bosses to build company profits and stock prices.

The Old Economy notion of worker exploitation was largely forgotten, at least among white-collar and high-technology employees. 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 them with stock options, bonuses and discount stock-purchase plans.

To investor-workers, unions seemed irrelevant because employees were confident management would protect them or they could protect themselves.

Cara Alcantar, who accumulated 1,600 stock options in her four years at WorldCom Inc., said she was naive to identify with WorldCom's chief executive. "I felt on the same side as Bernie Ebbers, on the cutting edge of technology," she said.

But 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," 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 had been unionized. With a union, she said, she might have had a defined-benefit pension that, unlike her vaporized 401(k), would have guaranteed her benefits even after the market plunged.

Labor leaders say that if Enron or WorldCom had been 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.

Harley Shaiken, a specialist in labor issues at the University of California at Berkeley, cites "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."

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