What Color Is Your Parachute?

Her Boss at United Got $3.2 Million. She Got Shoved Out the Door.

Although 46 Democrats, six Republicans, and two independents managed to vote against the package, 356 members of Congress voted for it, including Democrats Nita Lowey and Anthony Weiner, who represent parts of Kew Gardens. Those who cared about laid-off workers took Republican leaders' word that they would bring up workers' benefits later. A bill that would deliver these benefits, the Displaced Workers Assistance Act, doesn't appear headed for a vote soon.

So the flight attendants put hope in United's new CEO, John Creighton, who arrived October 28 with the approval of the machinists' and pilots' union representatives on the board of directors. As the head of Pacific Northwest timber and paper giant Weyerhaeuser until 1997, analysts say, Creighton earned the respect of unions and even some environmentalists, for training his loggers to tailor their clear-cuts to protect habitats and scenic integrity. In recent weeks, Creighton has invited the unions in to look at United's books. And since he took over, the probationary flight attendants United had fired were placed on furlough instead.

Union leaders, who say help for the probationaries had already been in the works, are reserving judgment.

United Flight attendant Sheila Adams, on post 9-11 layoffs: "They started talking about furloughs before we even had time to grasp what happened."
Photograph by Sylvia Plachy
United Flight attendant Sheila Adams, on post 9-11 layoffs: "They started talking about furloughs before we even had time to grasp what happened."

"We understand that the guy has a good reputation, that he's committed to the idea that United Airlines does not face bankruptcy," says Greg Davidowitch, president of the United flight attendant's local based in Kew Gardens. "That's a good start."

Those with real concerns over Creighton come from the human rights circuit, which for years has been protesting the oil company Unocal, where he has served on the board of directors for six years, including a recent term as nonexecutive chairman. He must know, then, about the company's $1.2 billion Yadana gas pipeline in Burma, a joint venture with a French company and a military dictatorship internationally censured for rape, torture, and executions without trial. According to one lawsuit, the military violently relocated Burmese citizens in the pipeline's way, used forced labor to build service roads and helipads, and forced villagers to carry its heavy loads and guns under penalty of severe beatings or even death.

Creighton met with an activist priest about these matters this year. "The board of directors definitely knows what's going on," says Marco Simons, at EarthRights International, which is representing 11 refugees from the region in the suit against Unocal. "If they have not found out from their internal sources, we've told them. The former president of Unocal has acknowledged the existence of forced labor at shareholders' meetings. It's clear what's going on. The members of the board of directors are either willfully complicit, or they are turning a blind eye to the human rights abuses."

In press statements, the company has countered that the project not only helped change military labor policies but also led to widespread socioeconomic improvements.

Then there's Unocal's earlier love affair with the Taliban. From 1997 to 1998, when Creighton was on the board of directors, Unocal dreamed of a pipeline moving oil from the former Soviet republics across Afghanistan to tankers in the Arabian Sea, and tried to strike up a business relationship with the Taliban. The company flew key Taliban members to Houston for a party and continued courting them until pressure from feminist groups in the U.S. and the embassy bombings in Africa finally forced the executives to scuttle the pipeline deal, which could have netted the Taliban $100 million a year.

Just imagine. John Creighton is a director on the board of the oil and gas company Unocal. Disregarding the Taliban's dismal record on human rights, the company spends a year cozying up to these rulers, giving them money and legitimacy. The Taliban sponsors camps that train militants who hate the United States. Some of these men fly to America, hijack two planes owned by United Airlines (among others), murder the flight attendants first, kill 4800 or so others, flatten financial and government buildings, and wreck the airline industry. United Airlines is one of the worst hit. To fix this mess, United's investors hire one of their board members, John Creighton. As CEO, Creighton will probably make, like his predecessor, about a million dollars a year. He steps down from his chairmanship at Unocal, but retains his seat on the board.

Sheila Adams, meanwhile, is on her way to a job fair in California, home of Unocal, hoping to find a new source of income, even as John Creighton is moving from Seattle to Chicago to accept his new executive post. For those mapping the networks and ironies of corporate globalization, there could hardly be a better object lesson.

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