Could you be Enron-ed?

SEATTLE – The final leg of the AFL-CIO sponsored tour, “Could you be ‘Enron-ed’?” was kicked off at the Seattle Labor Temple on June 19.

Former Screen Actors Guild President Ed Asner, two former Enron workers and Washington State Labor Council President Rick Bender were the panelists at the event. Each spoke on Enron’s dirty deals in the past and the biggest battle for the future: the fight to stop Social Security privatization.

“The reason labor has created this tour,” Asner said, “is to keep the heat on Enron and the Bush administration – because we know a disaster like this will happen again with our capitalist system.”

As evidence, Asner pointed out that workers at many major corporations have huge amounts of their 401(k) retirement plans tied up in their own company’s stock: Coca-Cola (81 percent), Procter & Gamble (85 percent) and Sherwin-Williams (90 percent) were three examples given.

After stating that $55 million in bonuses went to the top executives at Enron in the final days before bankruptcy was declared, Asner pondered, “Why is it called communism when workers want to share the profits, but business as usual when the corporate execs do it?”

Asner said that the 1,700 workers who were union members at Enron did not lose their pensions, pointing out that workers organizing is in their best interest. Summing up, he told the audience, “there is no democracy in our country without economic democracy.”

Next up was Elisa Hollis, who worked at Enron for five-and-a-half years. She has been victimized over and over by Enron, and the stigma that comes along with being a former worker there. From being given only 30 minutes’ notice to clear out on her last day, to receiving only 20 percent of the severance package promised, to having no serious interviews or job offers since being laid off, Hollis has much anger for what Enron did to her and her co-workers. “We need to pass laws that will punish any future Enron wannabes,” she emphatically said.

The one bright spot for Hollis was the fact that the AFL-CIO funded the lawyers who took on the suit against Enron. Some victories have been gaining $11 million in vacation pay and $5 million in a hardship fund for laid-off Enron workers.

Dennis Vegas, who worked at Enron in Houston, spoke about his experiences there: “At its peak, Enron was making $4 billion a day; it was Number 7 on the Fortune 500 and was a $70 billion corporation. Newsweek called Enron the ‘New Economy Mode.’”

Weak Securities Exchange Commission laws allowed the corruption and fraud that occurred at Enron, such as the Chief Financial Officer getting the ethics rules waived. Vegas also spoke of the financial losses of workers, “$11 billion in 401(k) funds in total were lost due to this scandal.”

Vegas grew up as the son of a union transit worker in New York City. He thought with his multiple degrees he could make it on his own – without the help of a union. Now among the 65 percent of the former Enron workers who have yet to find other jobs, he now admits that this was unfounded “youthful exuberance,” and is very proud to have the backing of organized labor.

Bender said, “Washington state has been hurt less by Enron because organized labor fought and won to stop privatization of our utilities here a few years ago.” Even with that victory, $100 million in 401(k) funds have been lost by workers in Washington due to Enron’s malfeasance. Bender emphasized the biggest fight now is to keep Social Security from being privatized.

All four speakers talked about supporting the Protecting America’s Pensions Act of 2002 (S-1992), sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), as one way to keep the rest of our retirement funds from being “Enron-ed.”

The author can be reached at commiett@yahoo.com