Archive for the ‘Layoffs’ Category

GE Dumps Workers as It Dredges the Hudson

Thursday, October 17th, 2013

DUMP_YRD_SIGNFor 30 years, General Electric resisted calls to remove the toxic substances it had dumped into New York’s Hudson River over several decades. Now that the process is well under way, the company is striking back at the state by shutting its cleaned-up plant along the river and moving some 200 jobs to Florida. The workers slated to be laid off feel that they are now being dumped.

The site of the dispute is Fort Edward (about 200 miles north of New York City), where from the late 1940s to the mid-1970s GE produced electric capacitors using insulating material containing polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). Vast quantities of PCB-contaminated waste ended up in the river’s waters and riverbed.

By the 1970s PCBs were recognized to be a human carcinogen and their manufacture was banned in the United States.  In 1975 the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation ordered GE to cease its PCB dumping and negotiated a path-breaking settlement under which the company would help pay the cost of cleaning up the pollution that had closed the river to commercial fishing and become a national symbol of corporate irresponsibility.

As the projected cost of the clean-up escalated, GE resisted dredging the river’s sediment, which was estimated to contain more than 130 metric tons of PCBs, and instead proposed dubious alternatives such as using bacteria to try to break down the toxic wastes. The company continued this obstruction for years, even after the EPA ordered it in 2001 to pay an estimated $460 million to remove 2.65 million cubic yards of sediment. The legal battle finally ended in 2005, but it took until 2009 for GE to actually begin the dredging. The process is now in its fifth year.

The workers at the Fort Edward plant may not be around to celebrate the completion of the clean-up. A few weeks ago, GE announced that it planned to close the plant and move the operation to Clearwater, Florida. The Fort Edward workers have been represented by the United Electrical (UE) union for the past 70 years, while the Clearwater plant—as you might expect—is non-union.

The Fort Edward move is just the latest of a long series of actions by GE that have weakened the economy of upstate New York. The city of Schenectady, where Thomas Edison moved his electrical equipment operation in 1886, has alone lost tens of thousands of jobs through waves of GE downsizing.

GE also seems to feel no sense of obligation in connection with the economic development subsidies it has received from state and local government agencies in New York. The biggest giveaways have come downstate. In 1987, a year after it was acquired by GE, NBC pressured New York City to give it $98 million in tax breaks under the threat of moving its operations to New Jersey.  In 1999 investment house Kidder Peabody, then owned by GE, got its own $31 million package to stay in the city.

There have also been subsidies upstate. For example, in 2009 GE got a $5 million grant and a $2 million tax abatement for its operations in Schenectady. The company’s research center in Niskayuna, New York has received millions of dollars in local tax breaks.

When GE has not received enough subsidies for its satisfaction, the company sometimes tries to reduce its local tax bills by challenging the assessed value of its property. In 2002, for example, it sued to get the value of its turbine plant in Rotterdam, New York reduced from $159 million to $41 million. A compromise ruling gave GE some of what it wanted and forced the town to reimburse the company about $6 million. Not satisfied, the company later brought a new challenge and got the town to negotiate a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes deal.

And, of course, GE is notorious for its dodging in other states and at the federal level, where it also gets subsidized through agencies such as the Export-Import Bank and got TARP-related assistance for its GE Capital unit.

Members of UE Local 332 are vowing to fight the plant shutdown, but they are up against a company that has shown it is  willing to go to great lengths to get its way on environmental, labor and tax issues.

Sins of the Other Bain

Thursday, May 24th, 2012

Those seeking to defend Mitt Romney’s track record at Bain Capital argue that private equity is a special kind of business. The firms that are taken over, they tell us, are often in bad shape, and restoring them to health may involve some painful surgery.

Turnaround situations, they insist, cannot be judged by customary job creation benchmarks.

The problem with this claim is that the harsh remedies applied at supposedly sick companies have often been used at healthier ones as well—and this practice is exemplified by the career of none other than Mitt Romney. Prior to his tenure at Bain Capital, Romney spent a decade as a management consultant, mostly at the firm of Bain & Co., which launched Bain Capital.

When the young Romney joined Bain & Co. in the late 1970s, management consulting was starting to be regarded with the same kind of mistrust today directed toward private equity and hedge funds. Sure, the consultants were celebrated by some as wizards of the corporate world, yet their magic frequently involved getting large companies to embark on radical restructuring that resulted in the elimination of many jobs and the multiplication of the workload of those workers who remained. Although their advice was frequently dressed up in strategic jargon, firms such as McKinsey were essentially perpetuating Frederick Taylor’s time-and-motion studies of the 1920s.

Bringing in an outside consulting firm enabled corporate managers to carry out drastic measures that would otherwise face insurmountable internal resistance. And the results could be disastrous, as seen in the retrenchment plan that Booz Allen cooked up for supermarket chain A&P in the 1970s.

Consultants fueled the manic business restructuring of the 1980s by making corporate executives think that joining in was a matter of survival. “If a chief executive officer isn’t thinking of restructuring, he’s not doing his job,” Jim Farley of Booz Allen insisted to the Wall Street Journal in 1985.

Bain & Co. was not satisfied with simply giving aggressive advice to companies; the firm wanted to be involved in implementing the changes. That could lead to trouble. During the 1980s, when Bain had some 60 of its staffers in its London office working on the Guinness account, it became embroiled in a scandal over illegal stock manipulation by the brewer during the takeover of a rival beverage company.

The creation of Bain Capital was a vehicle by which Bain’s principals could not only help implement restructurings but also profit from them in ways that were even more lucrative than consulting fees. Romney, who was tapped to run the offshoot, admitted to a Forbes interviewer (11/30/87) that his outfit worked very closely with Bain & Co., often hiring partners from the consulting firm to run the companies it was buying. Bain Capital also did deals involving companies that had been clients of Bain & Co. One of Romney’s first big scores involved the buyout of Accuride, a truck wheel unit of Firestone, which had been a long-time user of Bain’s consulting services.

Romney’s ties to Bain & Co. remained so close that when the consulting firm ran into financial problems of its own—exacerbated by a huge cash-out by founder Bill Bain and other senior executives—Romney was called in to complete a rescue that included the internal use of downsizing and restructuring measures it had so often executed at client firms.

The continuity between Romney’s work at Bain & Co. and his slash-and-burn activities at Bain Capital is suggested by the track record of his clients during his consulting years, which at Bain lasted from 1977 to 1984. It’s been reported that those clients included Monsanto, Corning, Burlington Industries and Outboard Marine.

Using the handy Fortune 500 online archive, I tracked the total headcount at the four companies during Romney’s Bain & Co. years. Each one of them had a dramatic drop: 14 percent at Monsanto, 17 percent at Corning, 25 percent at Burlington Industries and 33 percent at Outboard Marine. Together, they shed more than 36,000 workers from the end of 1976 to the end of 1984. Undoubtedly, there were other factors at work, but Romney and his Bain & Co. colleagues must have played a significant role in bringing about that job destruction.

Private equity can be a ruthless business, but its methods are not entirely unknown to the rest of the corporate world, especially when management consultants get into the act. Mitt Romney, whose business experience is supposed to qualify him for the White House, should answer for his actions at both Bains.

A Rogues Gallery of the One Percent

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

For the past 30 years, Forbes magazine has used its annual list of the 400 richest Americans as a platform for celebrating the wealthy. This year, amid the persistent jobs crisis and the growing challenge posed by the Occupy movement, the Forbes list has to be viewed in a different light. Rather than a scorecard of success, it comes across as a rogues gallery of the 1 Percent who have hijacked the U.S. economy.

Start with the overall numbers. Combined, the 400 are worth an estimated $1.5 trillion, up 12 percent from the year before. This at a time when both the net worth and annual income of the typical American household have been sinking. When the first Forbes list was published in 1982 there were only about a dozen billionaires. Today, every single member of the 400 has a ten-figure fortune. Their average net worth is $3.8 billion.

And where did this wealth come from? Forbes tries to justify the skyrocketing assets of the 400 by saying that “an alltime-high 70% are self-made…This is the working elite.” New riches may indeed be better than inherited wealth, but how did this “elite” climb the ladder of success?

The question is all the more pertinent, given the current inclination of conservatives to refer to the wealthy as “job-creators” as a way of rebuffing efforts to get the plutocrats to pay their fair share of taxes.

How much job creation can be attributed to the Forbes 400? In a chart on Sources of Wealth, the magazine notes that the largest single “industry” is investments, accounting for the fortunes of 96 of the 400. By contrast, manufacturing, which is more labor intensive, is listed as the source for only 17 of the tycoons.

Within the investments category, about one-sixth of the people in the top 100 made their fortunes from hedge funds, private equity and leveraged buyouts—activities that are more likely to result in the destruction than the creation of jobs. For example, Sam Zell (net worth: $4.7 billion) was ruthless in laying off workers after his takeover of the Tribune newspaper company.

Forbes no doubt would respond by pointing to the 48 people on the list who got fabulously wealthy from the technology sector. Yet many of these companies create very few jobs: Facebook, which made Mark Zuckerberg worth $17.5 billion, has only about 2,000 employees. Or, like Apple, which gave the late Steve Jobs a $7 billion fortune, they create most of their jobs abroad in low-wage countries such as China rather than manufacturing their gadgets in the United States. The same is now true for Dell—source of Michael Dell’s $15 billion fortune—which has closed most of its U.S. assembly operations.

The few people on the list who are associated with large-scale job creation in the United States got rich from a company known for paying lousy wages and fighting unions. Christy Walton and her immediate family enjoy a net worth of more than $24 billion deriving from the notorious Wal-Mart retail empire (other Waltons are worth billions more). The Koch Brothers ($25 billion) are bankrolling the effort to weaken collective bargaining rights and thereby depress wage levels, while satellite TV pioneer Stanley Hubbard ($1.9 billion) has been an outspoken critic of labor unions and was an aggressive campaigner against the Employee Free Choice Act.

Poor job creation performance and anti-union animus are not the only sins of the 400 and their companies. Some of them have a checkered record when it comes to other aspects of accountability and good corporate behavior.

Start at the top of the list. Bill Gates, whose $59 billion net worth makes him the richest individual in the United States, is known today mainly for his philanthropic activities. Yet it was not long ago that Gates was viewed as a modern-day robber baron and Microsoft was being prosecuted by the European Commission, the U.S. Justice Department and some 20 states for anti-competitive practices. In the 1990s there were widespread calls for the company to be broken up, but Microsoft reached a controversial settlement with the Bush Administration that kept it largely intact.

Today it is Google, whose founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page are estimated by Forbes to be worth $16.7 billion, that is at the center of accusations of monopolistic practices.

Amazon.com, headed by Jeff Bezos ($19.1 billion), has fought against the efforts of a variety of state governments to get the online retailer to collect sales taxes from its customers. By failing to collect taxes on most transactions, Amazon gains an advantage over its brick-and-mortar competitors but deprives states of billions of dollars in badly needed revenue.

Cleaning products giant S.C. Johnson & Son, the source of the combined $11.5 billion fortune of the Johnson family, recently admitted that it has used aggressive tax avoidance practices to the extent that it pays no corporate income taxes at all in its home state of Wisconsin. Forbes ignores this issue, but instead describes in detail the criminal sexual molestation charges that have been filed against one member of the family.

And then there are the environmental offenders, such as Ira Rennert ($5.9 billion.) His Renco Group was for years one of the country’s biggest polluters, and the Peruvian lead smelter of his Doe Run operation is one of the most hazardous sites in the world.

This is only a small sampling of the transgressions of the 400 and their companies. Rather than being hailed as job creators, they should be made to answer for their job destruction, their tax avoidance, their anti-competitive practices, their environmental violations and much more.  Rather than celebration, the Forbes 400 and the rest of the 1 Percent are in need of investigation.

Shaming the Corporate Cheapskates

Thursday, July 15th, 2010

Buried among the many features of the financial reform bill passed by Congress is a provision that could get you a raise. For this to happen, however, you have to work for a large company that is uncomfortable with having it made public how little it pays its workers.

Section 953 of the Dodd-Frank bill deals with disclosures relating to executive compensation, not only at banks but at all publicly traded companies. One of the ways it seeks to rein in out-of-control CEO pay is by requiring firms to reveal how the amount paid to the head of the company compares to that received by the typical employee. The theory is that having this information made public would give pause to grasping CEOs and soft-touch board compensation committees.

The total compensation of chief executives (along with that of the four other highest paid executives) is already disclosed through the annual proxy statements companies have to file with the Securities and Exchange Commission (which makes them public through the EDGAR online system, where the documents are designated as DEF 14A). Yet there have been no requirements relating to the disclosure of how much is paid to the CEO’s underlings.

Section 953 fills this gap by instructing companies to include in their future proxies the median of the annual total compensation paid to all employees apart from the CEO. They also have to calculate the ratio of that median to the CEO’s total bounty.

Those ratios will be fascinating to see, but just as interesting will be the figures on non-CEO pay themselves. For the first time, we will be able to make direct comparisons of the broad compensation practices of different companies within given industries or across sectors. Getting official data from the companies themselves will be an improvement on the selective information that now gets posted on websites such as Glass Door.

There will be limitations, of course. Congress should have required the disclosure of data specifically on hourly workers rather than lumping them in with higher-paid professionals and executives. It would also be preferable to have separate numbers on domestic and foreign employees. And it is likely that companies will exclude low-paid temps and (often misclassified) independent contractors in making their calculations.

Yet this information could still be put to good use. Having clear, company-specific data could help stimulate a much-needed movement to address the problem of wage stagnation in the United States. The reality of that stagnation is quite evident from overall labor market data collected by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, but it would be much more effective to point the finger at individual companies with low medians and seek to shame them for failing to provide adequate compensation to their workers.

The ability of employers to keep wages low stems from two classic sources: low unionization and high unemployment. We know all too well the story of how anti-union animus on the part of employers has pushed the percentage of private sector workers with collective bargaining protections to historic postwar lows. To the extent they are able, unions target individual companies such as Wal-Mart, T-Mobile and (until it was finally organized) Smithfield Foods for denying their workers the right to representation.

Unions and other advocacy groups also criticize specific companies that engage in mass layoffs, especially when they seem to be undertaken mainly to impress Wall Street.

Yet we rarely hear criticisms of particular companies for failing to hire new workers when conditions seem to warrant it. The “economy” is assumed to be to blame for the high levels of joblessness afflicting us, not deliberate decisions by corporations to keep their payrolls artificially lean. Recently, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce made the absurd argument that overregulation is responsible for the anemic hiring situation. The Obama Administration responded by saying that weak consumer demand is the cause. Absent is the idea that corporations are failing in their responsibilities.

The unwillingness to chastise corporations is all the more bewildering in the face of growing evidence that business is hoarding cash instead of investing in job-creating ways. A front-page story in the Washington Post headlined COMPANIES PILE UP CASH BUT REMAIN HESITANT TO ADD JOBS notes that U.S. nonfinancial companies, buoyed by rising profits, are now sitting on $1.8 trillion in liquid reserves.

Why is there not more of an outcry about this behavior? Here’s an idea: pick companies with the most egregious combinations of rising profits and falling payrolls and press them to justify their boycott of U.S. workers. Once the new disclosure requirement kicks in, they could also be pushed to explain their low compensation levels. Business needs a strong reminder that it also exists to provide opportunities for people to earn a living.

Sucked Into the Offshoring Whirlpool

Friday, February 26th, 2010

Critics of the $787 billion Recovery Act complain it is not doing enough to revive the economy, but they rarely ask why the companies that are receiving stimulus contracts and grants are not hiring more people. Now one of those recipients is facing a growing controversy over its employment practices in a case that helps explain why jobs remain in short supply.

Appliance maker Whirlpool is under fire from organized labor for its decision to shut down a 1,100-worker refrigerator plant in Evansville, Indiana and shift the work to a company factory in Mexico. The announcement was actually made last August, but it did not get national attention until recently, when union activists realized that Whirlpool had been given a $19.3 million grant by the U.S. Department of Energy to develop “smart appliances.” The funding was part of the Recovery Act’s $4.5 billion pot of money to encourage the development of the smart transmission grid.

The grant was not directed to the Evansville plant, but unions are nonetheless indignant that a company engaged in exporting jobs to a foreign low-wage location is receiving federal aid. The company made things worse for itself by warning workers not to participate in a planned protest demonstration featuring AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. The union at the plant, IUE-CWA Local 808, has filed an unfair labor practice charge over the warning.

This situation shows the difficulty of using stimulus funds or other incentives to generate employment at a time when so many large corporations no longer have an interest in producing things in the United States.

Consider Whirlpool. For decades its production activities were almost entirely located in the USA. In the 1980s that began to change as the company started to focus more on overseas markets. It bought large shares in the Canadian company Inglis, Mexico’s Vitromatic and then the European appliance business of the Dutch company Philips. In 1990 Forbes wrote that Whirlpool was “going global—with a vengeance.”

If Whirlpool’s foreign expansion was meant only to meet demand in foreign markets, that would be one thing. But the company began a process of reducing its manufacturing in the United States and other developed countries while increasing it in foreign low-wage havens. One of its favorite havens was Mexico. In the late 1980s the company closed numerous U.S. plants and shifted production to Mexican maquiladora plants. In 1996 the plant in Evansville lost about 265 jobs when some refrigerator production was moved to Mexico. In 2003 Whirlpool shifted some production from its facility in Fort Smith, Arkansas to a new plant south of the border.

The latter move came a decade after a bitter dispute between the company and the workers in Fort Smith represented by the Allied Industrial Workers union. In 1989 Whirlpool unilaterally imposed concessions on members of AIW’s Local 370, prompting the union to launch a national boycott of the company. In 1991 the head of the local confronted Whirlpool executives and directors at the company’s annual meeting, calling on them to abandon their “narrow-minded, shortsighted, union-busting behavior.” The dispute was not settled until 1993.

In 2006 the Evansville and Fort Smith plants lost a total of about 1,200 jobs to Mexico.  Or, in the antiseptic terms of Whirlpool’s press release: “The company also is adjusting its workforce levels at several of its North American manufacturing facilities to optimize production levels and take advantage of its expanded manufacturing footprint.”

In other words, the current shutdown plan in Evansville is just the latest in a series of “adjustments” by which Whirlpool is ridding itself of decently paid U.S. workers and replacing them with much cheaper labor abroad. The 1,100 losing their jobs are the remnant of a Whirlpool workforce in Evansville that back in the early 1970s totaled nearly 10,000 (photo). Companywide, 26 of Whirlpool’s 37 production facilities are now located outside the United States.

It did not seem to occur to Whirlpool that there was anything unseemly about accepting federal stimulus funds at a time when it was closing a domestic plant. In fact, something similar happened seven years ago. In 2003, during a period when the downsizing of the Evansville plant was already under way, the company accepted a $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy – via the Indiana Department of Commerce – to help develop a new manufacturing process for energy-efficient refrigerators produced in Evansville (source: Associated Press, February 8, 2003 via Nexis).

Until the federal government is prepared to do something serious about offshoring, it should at least refrain from giving financial assistance to firms that engage in the practice, even if the aid is going to a different part of the company—and even if it is for a laudable purpose such as promoting energy efficiency. The federal government now has a (non-public) contractor misconduct database to help it avoid giving procurement awards to bad actors. Perhaps there should also be a list of job-exporting companies which would be ineligible for federal aid until they reaffirm their commitment to domestic production.

Pressuring Big Business to Start Rehiring

Friday, October 9th, 2009

hyattThe conventional wisdom is that the emerging economic rebound will be a jobless recovery for a long time to come. Yet there is no consensus on why this is the case.

Congressional Republicans are all too willing to cite the purported shortcomings of the Democrats’ stimulus program, but their ulterior political motives are transparent. Some claim that banks are keeping too tight a lid on business credit, while others suggest that newly frugal consumers are to blame for not spending more.

There is surprisingly little criticism being directed at those who are in the best position to do something about joblessness: employers, especially large ones. The assumption seems to be that corporations are helpless victims of economic turmoil and cannot be expected to start hiring again on their own initiative.

Now, it is being said, we need to give companies an extra incentive to replenish their payrolls. Congress and the Obama Administration are reported to be giving serious consideration to the creation of a new tax credit for job creation. This would be a boon for those who get hired, but it is more than a bit infuriating that we now need to subsidize employers to do what used to happen routinely when the business cycle began to turn around.

The coddling of the employer class is all the more questionable given that, in many cases, large-scale layoffs appear to be a matter of choice rather than necessity. Take the case of computer maker Dell, which just announced that it will obliterate more than 900 jobs as part of its decision to close an assembly plant in Winston-Salem, North Carolina that it opened in 2005 after pressuring state and local governments to cough up some $300 million in subsidies. Dell said the move was “part of an ongoing initiative to enhance the long-term value it delivers to customers by simplifying operations and improving efficiency.” Translation: the company has been selling off its production facilities to cut costs and raise profits.

Or consider Simmons Bedding Company, which has laid off 1,000 workers and will probably shed more as it heads to bankruptcy court. Its problems are less the state of the economy than the effects of having been taken over by a series of private equity firms that have milked the operation dry.

Then there’s the situation of the housekeepers at Boston-area Hyatt hotels who were forced out of their $15 an hour jobs so the company could replace them with $8 an hour temps. Before being told that they were being booted out, the housekeepers were asked to train the temps, whom they were told would be filling in during vacations. The layoffs have prompted protests in Boston and around the country (photo).

In Fremont, California, nearly 5,000 workers at the New United Motor Manufacturing plant are losing their jobs because Toyota decided to get rid of its only unionized U.S. operation after the new federally subsidized General Motors exited what had been a 25-year joint venture between the two companies.

Last month, drugmaker Eli Lilly said it would eliminate 5,000 jobs as part of a restructuring designed to “speed medicines from its pipeline to patients.”

These recent examples are part of a trend that began well before the current crisis. For the past decade, U.S. private sector employment levels have been stagnant as corporations engaged in an orgy of offshore outsourcing, union-busting, downsizing and compelling the workers who remained to produce more than ever before.

This is not to say that all job losses can be blamed on restructuring and corporate greed, but neither is it accurate to attribute them all to forces beyond the control of employers. Instead of focusing exclusively on bribing corporations to hire people, it would be good to hear some criticism of big business for failing to do enough to help the country recover from the unemployment crisis—and for causing much of that crisis through its short-sighted and self-interested practices.

For years, large corporations announced layoffs as a way of currying favor with Wall Street. It would be refreshing to have them now feel pressure to announce new hiring to appease the rest of us.

Toyota to California: Drop Dead

Friday, July 31st, 2009

nummiThe U.S. market, especially in states such as California, has played a major role in Toyota’s ascent to the top of the global automobile industry. Now the company is showing its appreciation by announcing plans to put nearly 5,000 people out of work in the San Francisco Bay Area by closing its New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. (NUMMI) operation. The move came shortly after the new federally subsidized General Motors decided to exit what had been a 25-year joint venture between the two companies.

If Toyota ignores the pleas of California public officials and proceeds with the shutdown, the closing would represent a sharp break with the company’s paternalistic traditions. “It’s as if a long-held doctrine at Toyota – that it doesn’t shut down factories and it doesn’t fire workers – has crumbled,” a Japanese auto analyst told the New York Times. “Some would say this is a new era for Toyota.”

To be accurate, Toyota’s paternalism has not extended to the contingent workers it has employed at home and in the United States, and earlier this year it used voluntary buyouts to thin the ranks of regular workers at various U.S. plants.

Conditions are admittedly tough for Toyota. It posted its first annual loss in half a century for the fiscal year ending in March amid the sharp economic downturn. Yet it cannot be an accident that the only one of the company’s ten U.S. manufacturing plants to be put on the chopping block is the one where the workers are unionized.

Toyota, like other foreign automakers, has made sure to keep its U.S. operations non-union. NUMMI was a special case. It was created at a time when GM thought it needed to learn the secrets of Japanese auto production, Toyota was looking for ways to increase its U.S. market share without inflaming anti-import sentiments, and the United Auto Workers union was willing to experiment with new work rules that raised productivity amid rising industry layoffs.

The UAW took a lot of grief for its “jointness” arrangement at NUMMI, where the intensified pace of production was denounced by critics as “management by stress.” The contracts negotiated by the UAW have forced workers to earn a portion of their pay in the form of production bonuses. Earlier this year, the U.S. Labor Department ordered NUMMI to pay its workers an additional $862,000 because the company had miscalculated the bonuses for 2008 (Labor Relations Week, 6/25/09).

Despite the extent to which the UAW and NUMMI workers bowed to Toyota’s way of doing business, the company did not hesitate to shut down the operation once GM was out of the picture. Toyota has apparently given little thought to the impact of the closing on California’s economy amid the recession and the state’s fiscal crisis, which was resolved only by enacting cruel cuts in education and other public services. Instead, it is complaining about labor costs at NUMMI compared to its non-union plants in places such as Kentucky.

Not long ago Bloomberg reported that Toyota was considering using the NUMMI plant to produce its popular Prius. That would be appropriate, given the hybrid’s popularity in California. But the company quickly quashed that rumor and insisted that instead it would add Prius capacity at its planned plant in Mississippi once the market begins to recover. The Mississippi facility is slated to receive some $300 million in state economic development subsidies and, of course, will be run without a union.

Despite all that California has done for Toyota, the company’s message to the Golden State is: drop dead.

Will the WARN Act Become More than a Headache for Job-Cutting Employers?

Monday, April 7th, 2008

The buyout industry—or private equity, as it prefers to be called—likes to give the impression that it creates new jobs rather than destroying them in the companies it takes over. Yet plant closings do occur among private equity portfolio firms, and in some cases the owners aren’t even willing to observe basic federal law governing shutdowns. The other day, the Dow Jones LBO Wire ran a story noting that several buyout firms have been sued for allegedly violating the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act, or WARN Act for short.

One of the defendants is Code Hennessy & Simmons LLC, which is charged with failing to provide the required 60 days’ warning when its portfolio company Hoboken Wood Flooring abruptly shut its doors last fall. Another case involves Reliant Equity Investors, which is said to have violated WARN when layoffs occurred recently at its company BlueSky Brands.

The Dow Jones story referred to WARN as “an obscure and somewhat toothless labor law” that was “causing headaches for buyout firms.” To reinforce the latter idea, the web version of the article was illustrated with two aspirin containers.

It is true that WARN currently leaves something to be desired in terms of effectiveness. This was made abundantly clear in a four-part series by James Drew and Steve Eder that ran in the Toledo Blade last summer. They found that the 1988 legislation “is so full of loopholes and flaws that employers repeatedly skirt it with little or no penalty.” Part of the problem is that Congress did not provide for enforcement of the act, so workers must bring their own court actions that often result in meager settlements.

While buyout firms (and other employers) would probably prefer to see the law repealed, some pro-labor members of Congress are pushing to strengthen the act. At the same time, states such as New Jersey are moving to enact their own WARN Acts that go beyond the current federal statute. (For details on both federal and state initiatives, see the website of the Sugar Law Center for Economic and Social Justice, which has worked on WARN issues since its founding in 1991.)

Layoff notification requirements by themselves are no solution for job dislocation, but given the way the economy is going, workers need all the help they can get.

Some other WARN resources:
Toledo Blade Interactive map with info on WARN lawsuits Congressional Research Service report (September 26, 2007)
GAO report (September 2003)
Directory of State Rapid Response Coordinators