A tale of two disasters

On a cold night in December 1995, disaster struck the town of Lawrence, Mass., an economically depressed community in the rolling hills of New England's once burgeoning manufacturing heartland. A huge explosion rocked the Malden Mills textile plant, followed by a fire that destroyed three of the four structures on the property and injured 33 people.

Everyone, including the mill's 3,400 workers, expected the owner, 70-year-old Aaron Feuerstein, to take the insurance money, close up shop, and either retire or rebuild someplace where labor was cheaper and the prevailing business climate less harsh. Yet the chief executive, who had guided his family business for four decades, decided to do the right thing.

He refused to forsake his workers, promised to keep paying them while he rebuilt the business and ultimately reopened a state-of-the art facility 20 months later. For his loyalty to his city and his commitment to his employees, Feuerstein was dubbed "The Mensch of Malden Mills." (Mensch: a Yiddishism meaning "a stand-up kind of guy; a man with a heart.')

On Sept. 11, another disaster struck when terrorists slammed hijacked jets into the Pentagon and the World Trade Center towers. Yet, from the rubble, something good emerged. "Mensches" appeared everywhere. Compassion and activism began replacing coldness and apathy; pride and patriotism strove to outshine arrogance and selfishness. All across our land, a new ethos of shared sacrifice and commitment to higher principles began to radiate through the gray smoke of destruction and despair. Everywhere, it seems, but in corporate America.

Take the airline industry. In deep trouble before Sept. 11, the airlines wasted no time in dispatching their $50 million-per-year lobbying forces to Capitol Hill, in an attempt to capitalize on our national trauma. Initially begging for a $24 billion bailout -- much more than they will lose due to the terrorist attacks -- they ultimately settled for a $15 billion package of aid and loan guarantees.

Yet, in their zeal to get their losses covered, none of the airline executives nor many in Congress -- to whom the industry gave $6.8 million in contributions last election cycle -- seemed to care about the 100,000 airline workers laid off following the carnage. Nor will the bail-out pay for the much-needed strengthening of airport security, which the industry has tried to buy on the cheap for years. So much for shared sacrifice.

Closer to home we have the case of Walt Disney World, the area's largest employer, under the direct control of CEO Michael Eisner, forever after to be known as the "Schnorrer of Reedy Creek." (Schnorrer: a Yiddishism meaning "a cheapskate; a chiseler.") Last week, throughout the company's Orlando theme parks, dozens of longtime employees were herded into rooms and informed that their positions had been eliminated.

Immediately they were stripped of their IDs, given two-weeks' salary, a payout of their accrued vacation and sick days, and a plastic bag to empty out their lockers. Within minutes, security personnel -- specifically detailed to prevent acts of unseemly recrimination -- unceremoniously led them off Disney property.

Upon witnessing these sad events, and based upon the manner in which they were treated, one might have thought these people were themselves suspected terrorists, instead of loyal, emotionally devastated employees.

After the disaster in Lawrence, and Feuerstein's decision to stand by his workers, the "Mensch" explained his thinking. "Other CEOs feel I'm sort of a stupid guy who doesn't know what to do with his ... money. But treating the workers fairly is good for the shareholder. I consider our workers an asset, not a cuttable expense ... When you do the right thing, you'll probably end up more profitable than if you did wrong." Eventually, Feuerstein was proven correct. His company emerged stronger and richer.

Even if firing workers wasn't an economically foolish thing to do -- how can we stave off recession if hundreds of thousands of newly unemployed consumers have less to spend? -- one can argue, especially now, that it is wrong to shatter livelihoods with the same moral obliqueness the terrorists used when they unfeelingly shattered lives.

Clearly, though, the ethical implications are lost on some people. Only hours before the Disney firings, Eisner sent an e-mail to cast members: "... as we take prudent measures to deal with current realities, it is important to keep in mind that we offer something our fellow citizens need now more than ever." And what could that be, Michael ... a pink slip? Schnorrer!

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