The Workers Who Didn’t Matter in Mitt Romney’s World (OPINION)

Over the next few months, the editors of Parents.com will report on hot-button election issues that American families face today, from healthcare to education. In the spirit of offering diverse perspectives on the election, we’ve chosen three moms from across the political spectrum to be guest bloggers on Parents News Now. Each one of them will offer a unique take on the topics that they–and you!–are most passionate about. (Read the entire blog series.)

By Sharon Lerner

“Do you have to cheat to be rich?”

The question came from the chocolate-smeared lips of my six-year-old son, Sam, as we licked fudgesicles at the end of another steamy day.

In the simplest sense, the answer is no, of course. But you can forgive a child–or an adult, for that matter– for having such a thought in this particular election cycle.

After all, the Republican presidential candidate has made oodles of money doing something that–at best–is unclear, and–at worst–seems exactly like cheating. (I say oodles, not because I’m too lazy to look up the details of his fortune, but because Romney has refused to release the tax returns which would give us the figure–estimated to be anywhere between $150 and $250 million.)

His dad, George Romney, ran a car company. I get that. American Motors made money by turning metal into automobiles. Mitt, our would-be president, ran a company called Bain Capital, a “private equity firm” (already I’m on shakier ground) that bought and sold other companies.

How do you make money when you don’t actually create anything? The standard answer is that you “eliminate inefficiencies.” But what does that actually mean? And how does it affect companies’ employees and their families?

To find out, I called Cindy Hewitt, who was the HR manager at Dade Behring, a company that Bain formed from another company it acquired in 1994, in part by laying off some 850 of its employees in Florida three years later–and sold in 1999 at a profit of $242 million.

The Dade Behring factory, which made pills and blood testing devices, was on the banks of the Miami River in Florida across the street from a small cluster of houses where many of the workers lived. Hewitt describes the place as “a working class community, nothing fancy,” that was nonetheless remarkably close-knit and stable:

“What made this incredibly unique was the fact that so many people within that community worked there, walking to work across the street every day. Multiple generations, extended families were employed by the plant.”

Unfortunately Hewitthad to give the people of this small, river-bank community the devastating news that they’d lost their jobs when Bain closed the plant in November of 1997.

“Usually, if someone gets laid off, others in the family can help each other out,” says Hewitt,“ who was familiar with the ways of the corporate world, having previously worked at Pepsi and Exxon. “But here, because multiple members within families lost their jobs, there weren’t those resources. There were families where multiple aunts and uncles and parents all worked at the plant.”

Adding to the pain of losing well-paying jobs with decent benefits was the indifference with which the company handled the transition.  Hewitt says the factory work came with health insurance and paid in the $15- to $20-an-hour range.

In September of 1997, before she had any idea the plant would close, Hewitt’s bosses told her to bring over roughly a dozen skilled workers from a similar plant that was closing in Puerto Rico. The workers didn’t initially want to come, she told me, and specifically worried about what might happen if they lost their new jobs in Florida.

Hewitt relayed their concerns to her higher-ups and was assured that there was absolutely no discussion of closing the facility. Yet, 60 days after they moved to Miami, these workers had their fears confirmed when they learned that the plant’s demise was imminent. This was in November, after school was underway, and half of them had brought their children with them.

Dade Behring had paid the Puerto Rican employees’ moving costs, which Hewitt estimates were about $10,000 each. As part of their contract, they had signed agreements that stipulated that the workers would repay these costs if they left the company before a certain amount of time had passed. Hewitt says most of the recruits from Puerto Rico asked to be released from their agreement before the plant closed so that they could return to their home to seek new jobs and restart their lives there.

“The only decent thing to do would be to release these employees from their relocation agreement,” says Hewitt. But, despite the fact that Dade Behring was terminating their employment, the company threatened to collect the money from the employees if they left before the plant closed, and even threatened to go after them legally if they didn’t pay it, according to Hewitt, who describes the workers’ experience as particularly gut-wrenching.

“They had just gone through the plant closure in Puerto Rico and they come over here for what they believe is a continuing career only to find they have to go through the same horrific experience,” she says. “All they asked was don’t make us pay you back the thousands of dollars for relocation.”

Perhaps these moving costs are some of the inefficiencies that Bain specialized in eliminating. Still, it’s hard to see how a company would fight so hard to get $120,000 (to use Hewitt’s estimates) from workers whose lives–and children’s lives–they themselves had thrown into chaos. Had they made just this one concession toward decency, Bain would still have walked away with $241,880,000.

But, at least at Dade, executives didn’t seem particularly concerned with decency or worker’s feelings, as evidenced by another incident Hewitt described to me. This one took place after the announcement of the plant’s closing, while workers were putting in mandatory overtime despite facing imminent job loss. It was a somber period, according to Hewitt:

“They know their job is ending,” she says. “They understand that it’s unlikely that they’re going to find anything that will remotely sustain their families the way this job has. They also recognize they’re going to have a harder time competing with workers in their twenties. But they’re still working many hours.”

And yet, one day during this awful time, the workers– “people who are working their butts off, whose lives are in total disarray,” Hewitt says–were treated to an extra helping of humiliation. As they made their way from the plant’s production area to the break room, they passed by the executive suites where, through the glass wall that separated them, they could see their bosses practicing their golf strokes.

Hewitt remembers 20-or-so workers with their faces pressed against the glass wall, staring, open-mouthed as the men on the other side casually swung putters.

Romney has responded to some of the criticism around Dade Behring (which is just one of seven companies that went bankrupt after being taken over by Bain in the Romney era) by noting that he left Bain in 1999, which was two years after the plant’s closing and the same year as the $242 million payout to the private equity firm.

But, in light of the news that Bain filed documents with the Securities and Exchange Commission listing Romney as the chief executive and chairman of Bain until 2002, that defense seems pretty crumbly. (Romney responded to that revelation by explaining that, despite being “the owner of an entity that is filing that information,” he had no role in running the company.)

For Hewitt, the Dade Behring affair was traumatic enough to drive her from the corporate world. Days after seeing her co-workers stare at their golf-playing bosses, she quit. I reached her at an animal shelter, where she now tends to feral cats and enjoys the feeling that she can “make a difference.”

For me, the sordid story of what happened to this small community in Florida is enough to convince me that, whether he broke the law or not, Romney is indeed a cheater in the sense that I think Sam meant it: someone who does the wrong thing to make money.

You don’t have to cheat to be rich, I’m going to tell Sam when he’s old enough to understand. But it appears that Romney did. And someone like that should never be President.

Read more opinions from Sharon Lerner.

Add a Comment
Back To Parents News Now
  1. by Christi

    On July 19, 2012 at 1:13 pm

    Total turn off… please stay out of the political arena. Your readers do not look to you for political advice, we look to you for parenting advice.

  2. by Stacy

    On July 19, 2012 at 1:36 pm

    I can agree with one thing you said, you’re too lazy to look up the facts. This is a sorry sham of an article, you should be more concerned about what Obama is doing to our country and our money. Are you also going to explain crony capitalism to your son and how Obama’s backers are getting their ROI on the backs of the taxpayer? How unions were illegally given precidense over investers and the taxpayer in the auto bailout? How Obama’s transcripts are locked down tight, why doesn’t he release those? Are you equally incensed over Solyndra? I’m really tired of the bias, when Bush was in office everytime he went to Crawford it was national crime but the Obama’s have spent millions of our taxpayer dollars to constantly vacation, Bush played a few rounds of golf before 9/11 and ceased because he felt it wasn’t the right thing to do during a time of war, we heard over and over about all his rounds of golf, Obama has played OVER 100 rounds since being in office and it’s not a problem. We have over 40 months of 8%+ unemployment and it came out yesterday that Obama hasn’t met with his jobs council in 6 MONTHS! Is that cheating all the unemployed and suffering families? The democrat controlled senate has not passed a budget in 3 years and Harry Reid (D) refuses to bring any of the budgets that the republican controlled house has passed, is that cheating us?

  3. by Betty

    On July 19, 2012 at 3:52 pm

    Stacy and Christi are right. Remember the title of the magazine! What a waste of a payroll check. The internet is now dumber. Politics and parenting will always coexist but should populate entirely different, mutually exclusive publications. Politico or Drudge does not blog about diapers and nap time so keep them separate. Your entire blog series is a trojan horse of liberal ideology. Regardless of political sides you are semantically out of context. You just lost my entire subscription and the free ones that you send me for my lobby.

  4. by JJ

    On July 19, 2012 at 4:16 pm

    I think we can all agree that politics affect our families. But please, give me political facts about the presidential candidates…don’t give me a story fueled by a disgruntled employees. Wrong vehicle for partisan politics soapbox.

  5. by Reiko

    On July 20, 2012 at 10:22 am

    Really, commenters? As my son would say, “Don’t be such a hater.” This is a perfectly reasonable and informative article about what happened to these families when these plants were closed, and it seems appropriate as a “report on hot-button election issues that American families face today.” If you don’t like it, don’t read it. But please don’t assume for the rest of us that just because we are parents we are devoid of political opinion, or need to separate out our parenting selves from our political or community-oriented selves. How we treat each other on a daily basis, and what sort of treatment of others we expect from our leaders and systems, is very much related to parenting in my mind. So thank you to the magazine for not assuming I am a one-dimensional person concerned only with diapers.

  6. by Liz

    On July 20, 2012 at 1:04 pm

    Sharon Lerner, thank you for this story. I appreciate knowing more about what Romney represents, because he changes his tune so much it’s impossible to tell from what he says. And thanks to the magazine for publishing the various sides of the political debate.
    And well said Reiko. To the other commenters, if you object to reading commentary from across the political spectrum, why are you reading a column that clearly states that its entire purpose is to feature commentary from across the political spectrum? Dredging up the most rote right-wing objections to a well-thought out, well-researched piece is the epitome of disrespect, and should have no place in civil discourse. Such civility prevents me from writing more about your viewpoints.

  7. by Dan Petruk

    On July 20, 2012 at 5:23 pm

    A well researched article. The answer to your child’s question is: “No, but it helps.”

  8. by J

    On July 20, 2012 at 8:25 pm

    I have never been very interested in politics, but I know that is necessary to be aware and stay on top of these topics to be an informed, productive member of society. It saddens me when I see people say that they do not want to read about others’ political opinions. It CLEARLY states that it is an ‘Opinion’ post and a ‘Blog’. I personally appreciate reading opinions from different sides…I think it gives you better perspective than just reading/watching the news. Also, I get really tired of reading the same typical parenting advice over and over again…I rarely even pay attention to the links posted on Twitter from Parents, but this caught my eye and I’m glad for it…looking forward to reading all the blogs in this series!

  9. by Michelle

    On July 20, 2012 at 8:25 pm

    So let’s focus on how Mitt earned his money. Let’s not focus on the Obamas and their faults during their careers both before and during their stay at the White House? Both Obamas have “voluntarily” surrendered their bars, yet not given reasons, not done anything about his family mooching off the government for years, not protected our borders, nor our government for his corrupt cronies. But please let’s focus on Mitt’s money!!

    Personally I’d prefer you stick to parenting advice! The more I read from your staffers the more I want to cancel my subscription and suggest that all of my friends do the same! It’s disgusting!

  10. by Who Are You Voting For?

    On August 7, 2012 at 7:34 am

    [...] portrait of the impact of Bain Capital on the families of one company in her essay, “The Workers Who Didn’t Matter in Mitt Romney’s World.” She begins:“Do you have to cheat to be rich?”The question came from the [...]

  11. by Ray

    On August 8, 2012 at 8:02 am

    It saddens me to hear of anyone losing a job, since I have gone through that experience myself. In the case of Bain, however, it must be said that the huge majority of the money earned was through commissions paid by the companies that survived and prospered after being reorganized and streamlined by Bain. Keep in mind that Dade Behring and other companies that went under were in trouble in the first place, and would never have been involved with Bain had they not needed help and ASKED Bain to come in to try to save the company. The author, and so many others who criticize Romney, do not understand that venture capitalist companies like Bain take huge risks when they agree to tackle a company’s problems. They invest millions of dollars in an attempt to rescue struggling companies, not knowing for sure if that investment will be rewarded. Bain has lost millions of dollars in some of its attempts to rescue. The inclination of some of Romney’s critics is to view companies like Bain as vultures who swoop in, fire employees and steal the assets of a company. Nothing could be further from the truth, and un-knowledgeable people such as this author should stop sensationalizing the tragedy of a failed company.