What's good for AT&T (massive layoffs) must be good for American (shutdowns)

January 05, 1996|By Mike Littwin

I am watching C-Span the other day, meaning, of course that my remote is broken.

You don't think I'd intentionally tune in to "live" congressional hearings and watch Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-Nearly Dead) molt, do you?

Anyway, this guy comes on to explain why Congress and the president don't feel any pressure to end the government shutdown.

It's because of the stock market, he says.

The stock market keeps going up in spite of the shutdown, he points out. And so, if the markets aren't panicked, why should the government panic?

He makes some sense, unless you happen to be one of the 700,000 loyal, steadfast, government employees who can't feed his/her kids anymore because Newtie and Billy and the rest of the boys can't play nice.

If the government really wanted to accomplish something, though, why not get serious and just lay off all the nonessential workers? (By the way, how '90s is this whole essential vs. nonessential worker self-esteem thing? I'll clear it up for you: Air traffic controllers are essential government employees; Sonny Bono is a nonessential).

Here's the plan: Fire the lot of them, and just watch the market jump, particularly if the FCC boys are among those canned.

The government, so enamored of big business these days, could follow the AT&T model. AT&T is, of course, a giant company and nearly as American as America itself. It also makes billions of dollars every year, unlike the government, which runs up a debt of about a trillion dollars a minute.

The way I understand the story, AT&T executives are sitting around the board room preparing for the day's discussion topic. Yesterday was golf. The day before that was vacation homes.

The topic for this day is how to make even more money, because it doesn't seem fair that Michael Eisner and Bill Gates get to have so much of it for themselves.

One guy -- you know the one, the guy who's always complimenting the boss' tie -- has this plan to cut 40,000 workers. He suggests they do it right after Christmas, just as a nice touch, soon after the employees had put all those color TVs and CD players on their AT&T Gold MasterCard.

There's much laughter all around. And the boss says, "What the hell, let's do it."

And the stock goes through the roof.

The stock market loves this idea. It loves layoffs. It loved it when IBM laid off 65,000 a few years ago. It loved it when Ford laid off 50,000.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not against all layoffs. I'm just afraid AT&T is laying off the wrong people. For example, I want them to fire Bonnie, who called me the other night in the middle of "Seinfeld" to ask my thoughts on long-distance phone service.

They don't call it firing, anyway. They call it downsizing, a great Orwellian word. And it's all done to please some dweeby stock analyst in bow tie and suspenders sitting in front of his computer, who decides which stocks to recommend.

And then he goes home. His work is done. He turns on CNBC, sips his Evian, sees the market did well again today and wonders what all the fuss is about. He's got a job, doesn't he?

There was a time, before C-Span, before cable even (sometimes I think maybe I dreamt it and there wasn't any such time at all) when if a company was making money and laid off 40,000 workers, there'd be an outcry. You'd hear words like "morality" and "ethics" and "robber barons."

Isn't there any responsibility to employees anymore? Isn't there any responsibility to the community?

OK, just kidding.

The companies had no choice, because, well, their stock was flattening out, shareholders were getting restive, and, besides, the CEO's bonus is tied in to stock performance.

I don't understand the stock market. That doesn't mean I don't play it. You have to be a fool not to.

I play and I listen for the steady hum of coins dropping, as from a slot machine.

Because, no matter what happens, if it's peace in Bosnia or war in Chechnya, it just keeps going up. And that's the way it will always be, right? That's what my broker tells me.

Playing the market is now America's pastime. We play the market. And the market -- whoever that is -- says that AT&T must fire its workers and the government must slim down, unless we don't want any more of those dividend checks.

And if somebody has to get hurt, well, let's hope it's Bonnie. And Sonny.

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