Let Them Eat Cake

Now Playing: Songs of Life, by Bret Michaels. “Now look at you out on the streets. Your mom and dad think you’re a freak, Don’t understand you. You wear your heart on your sleeve, Seems all the people that you meet they criticize you too. But just stand tall and face the pain. You will not fall for the masquerade.”

That’s what Marie Antoinette said (or maybe didn’t say – no one’s really sure) when told that the people of France had no bread to eat. The comment basically shows the insensitivity to the living condition of the working classes.

Let’s examine two examples of insensitivity that have surfaced in recent days.

The first involves a Cary company named Dex One. It publishes yellow-pages directories and online business directories. Its CEO, David Swanson, is “retiring” tomorrow, nudged out – at the least – after helping the company emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January. Pretty cold, you think. Others might not agree.

For one, the reorganization threw out about $6 billion in debt. And about 850 employees. And it wiped out the holdings of shareholders. But the company got a new name out of it – it used to be called R.H. Donnelley – and, at least for a time, new life.

But Swanson deserves credit for saving the company and the jobs of the remaining 3,400 employees, right? Not so much. Turns out he was the person who pulled the trigger on the acquisitions that saddled it with so much debt.

And there’s something else. Swanson – or someone at what was then Donnelley – faked part of his resume, according to Forbes. It reported in 2006 that Swanson didn’t have the bachelor’s degree from St. Cloud State University in Minnesota that the press releases announcing his ascension to CEO claimed. Or that appeared on his official bio on a trade association website. The company says Swanson never made the claims, which an unidentified company employee mistakenly put in the press releases. It does say Swanson failed to catch the “mistakes” when reviewing the press releases.

So don’t feel too bad for Swanson, even though he’s out of work at 55. Instead, you might want to feel … envy.

That’s because of what Dex – and remember, it has just emerged from bankruptcy – is paying to get rid of him.

First off, there’s a separation agreement – $6.5 million. Then there is his pension – $5.7 million. And a payment under the company’s 2009 long-term incentive plan: as much as $3.5 million. And at least a portion of this year’s bonus, yet to be revealed. And reimbursement for the cost of life insurance, health insurance, financial planning and health and country club dues into 2013 or until he gets a job or starts his own business. Like either of those are gonna happen.

But the company did drive a pretty hard bargain. In return for his deal, Swanson agreed not to sue or demand damages from Dex and is bound by a 12-month noncompete. (Though in truth, the best thing for the company would seem to be having Swanson work for a competitor – given how he “helped” Donnelley.)

Meanwhile, Dex has never apologized – to my knowledge – to the workers it laid off. Or the lenders it won’t pay. Or the shareholders it wiped out.

Example No. 2 is actually two recent job announcements touted by the state Department of Commerce. One involved Advanced Textile Solutions, which is opening a fabric plant in Caldwell County that eventually will employ about 127. The other was from WhiteRidge Plastics, which is adding 55 jobs at its factory in Reidsville. Good news, right?

Well, not so much, in some quarters. Critics have been fretting incessantly about the average annual salaries the jobs will pay: $19,111 at Advanced Textile and $21,856 at WhiteRidge.

Yes, those are pretty low. But dammit, those are jobs. Not everyone can be a software engineer or biotechnology researcher. And those folks have to work and buy bread (and maybe even cake once in awhile) themselves.

It’s  easy for people who have higher paying jobs to look down their noses at factory workers earning less.  And yes, I’d like to see those folks making more too.

But, as I’ve discovered in my “time between jobs,” working means something. And I’ll bet there will be more applicants than jobs at both of those factories.

Both companies will get incentives – Advanced will get $254,000 if it does what it says it will do and White Ridge will get nearly $93,000.

Like most folks, I hate incentives. I wish they’d go away. But they won’t.

So I’m glad the state isn’t forgetting about the folks that might not have the skills for advanced manufacturing and biotechnology jobs. Those people need work, too. And I hope they’ll get cake.

“All the world is birthday cake, so take a piece, but not too much.” _ George Harrison


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