HOUSTON – When Enron’s hall of mirrors came crashing down last December, more than 4,000 workers instantly lost their jobs, health care and pensions, while most of the top executives cashed in their stock and made their getaway.
Richard Shaw, president of the Harris County AFL-CIO, is proud that, in that hour of need, the labor movement of Texas, and the nation, stepped forward to help the abandoned Enron workers. This is in glaring contrast to George W. Bush, former Texas Governor and now president, who threw the workers a few words of sympathy, bare bones from the politician who owed his political career to millions in contributions from Enron and other oil and gas corporations.
Lawmakers who received Enron cash rushed to transfer that money to an Enron worker fund that now has reached $5 million, thanks to the generosity of sympathetic people across the country. But for the most part, the message from the corporate and political elite was: “So long, it’s been good to know you.”
Shaw, a former school teacher and founder of the Houston Federation of Teachers, told the World in a recent interview that the national AFL-CIO, together with the Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition joined with the workers in cosponsoring a news conference in front of the Enron towers in downtown Houston Feb. 13 to hear from Enron workers and popularize their petition for severance pay. The AFL-CIO has covered the legal expenses of a lawsuit by the workers asking the bankruptcy court in New York to order Enron to provide severance pay. The labor federation also invited Enron workers to attend their winter Executive Council meeting in New Orleans last month.
“I just attended a town hall meeting of about 300 Enron workers at Houston Community College,” said Shaw. “I had Enron workers come up and say, ‘Why are you here?’ They have so little knowledge of the labor movement that they don’t even know what the initials AFL-CIO stand for. I tell them, ‘We are here because an injury to one is an injury to all.’”
He added that the new CEO of Enron was also at the town hall meeting. “I asked him not to oppose the Enron workers’ demand for severance pay. He said they had to take a position but it would be a ‘mild’ one.”
While claiming there is no money to provide severance pay, Enron is paying retainer bonuses to keep executives from leaving Enron. “How can they justify that when so many people have been left with nothing?” Shaw demanded.
He pointed out that federal law requires companies to give at least 60 days advance notice of a layoff. “But in half an hour, 4,000 Enron workers are gone,” he said. “These workers are spread out over 13 counties, so the difficulty has been to contact them, getting them the benefits and services they are entitled to.”
Most of those affected considered themselves “middle class,” he said. “Many had been with Enron their entire working lives. They never saw a need for a union because the company was going to ‘take care of them.’ They viewed Ken Lay almost like a father figure.”
But when the crash came, Lay was a “deadbeat dad,” who took the money and is now hiding out in his $7.1 million penthouse at the Huntingdon in fabulous River Oaks, a few blocks from the mansion of his friends, George and Barbara Bush.
“Enron represents the absolute worst of corporate America,” Shaw continued. “What these Enron executives did cannot be forgiven.”
The corporate CEOs will always put the bottom line ahead of the needs of their workers, he said. “They will never sacrifice profits to benefit their workers. It has always been the job of workers to organize themselves together and stand up for themselves. That is the reason unions exist. If unions are going to grow, we have to organize in the service sector and the white collar sector. We don’t organize CEOs, but most of the people in those towers downtown are workers.”
During the bankruptcy court hearing in Manhattan, Enron worker Debra Johnson said she was laid off and is now struggling to support her two young grandchildren on unemployment compensation and food stamps. She has no health care coverage. “We are here,” she said, “because many laid off Enron employees simply cannot make ends meet. While a few executives got midnight wire transfers of more than a million dollars, thousands of us cannot afford health care and face evictions from our apartments.”