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Workers' view of bosses chills

By Steven Greenhouse

New York Times News Service

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 CEOs 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 just as eager as their bosses to maximize 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.

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To these investor-workers, unions seemed irrelevant. The collective approach seemed anachronistic because employees were confident that management would protect them or they could protect themselves.

But the paradigm began to crack with the high-tech bust and resulting layoffs, and crumbled with the recession and the Enron-led wave of scandals.

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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