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Cable Manners

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For the last 150 years or so, corporations have enjoyed the same rights under the law as other "persons." The 14th Amendment, enacted in 1868 to guarantee equal protection and due-process rights to all citizens, was originally intended to benefit freed slaves. But of the 307 cases brought before the U.S. Supreme Court between 1890 and 1910 dealing with the 14th Amendment, only 19 concerned the rights of blacks; 288 had to do with corporations.

"Corporations are a special kind of person, the kind that have no moral conscience," notes Noam Chomsky in The Corporation, a must-see film showing this week at the Roxy Cinema in Burlington. The award-winning documentary makes a compelling case that many of today's corporations exhibit symptoms that are alarmingly similar to those of a psychopath: an inability to feel guilt or remorse, nonconformity to the rules and mores of society, an unwillingness or inability to tell the truth, and so on.

The message in The Corporation may hit too close to home for the 150 employees of Belden CDT of Essex Junction, who were told last week they'd be out of their jobs sometime in early 2005. The news came just weeks after Belden, Inc. merged with Cable Design Technologies to form one of the largest U.S. manufacturers of high-speed electronic cables. The Essex Junction plant makes data-networking and other cables that are used in high-temperature environments.

Why the closure? Presumably, the Essex Junction plant wasn't profitable. "No, that's not it," says Dee Johnson, director of investor relations for Belden CDT. "It's a good plant, but it's the smallest plant that Belden has" and the company is trying to save money -- $25 million to be exact.

So, Belden must have been having a bad year financially, right? Wrong. Just two weeks earlier, the company reported strong sales and improved earnings. In fact, Belden's last-quarter revenues grew by 20 percent over a year ago. Sales are up in both the North American and Asian markets. Business also benefited from a weak dollar compared to a strong yen.

So, operating expenses for the company must be up? Uh, no. According to Johnson, Belden has been increasing its prices to offset the rising price of copper, a major component in high-speed cables.

Are those lost jobs staying in the United States? Most will, Johnson reports, but a few will head south to Mexico. So at least some of those Essex Junction folks will be able to relocate? "There would be few to no opportunities for anyone to relocate," Johnson says. "Probably none."

So, let's review: a corporation with strong earnings, increasing revenues and plenty of cash on hand lays off 150 Vermonters right after Christmas to keep Wall Street happy -- with no guilt or remorse? Check.

*****

Kudos to Barre resident Tom Luce, who laid it on the line last month to secure the release of a young journalist who was jailed down in Haiti. Luce, a French teacher at Spaulding High School in Barre, just returned to Vermont after spending a month in the war-torn country, his second visit to Haiti since the ouster in late February of democratically elected President Jean Bertrand Aristide.

Luce was in the Caribbean nation with a group called the Haiti Coalition, doing what's known as "accompaniment work": A foreign worker provides an international presence to someone who is being persecuted for political reasons, which often (though not always) staves off the worst reprisals. Luce was working to free Jean "Lolo" Reagan, a 20-year-old community leader, disc jockey and radio news commentator who grew up in an orphanage founded by Aristide.

Reagan was arrested without a warrant on March 1 and held for four months in an overcrowded jail cell. "That meant, of course, that he stayed in these terrible conditions, sometimes 40 people in a cell, so they couldn't lay down to sleep, their food was infested with bugs and they only had bathwater to drink," Luce reports. Reagan was being kept in jail despite the fact that a Haitian judge had ruled his arrest illegal and ordered his immediate release. Luce's job was to accompany Reagan's attorney between the court and the prison. "It was quite a ping-pong game," he says.

"I thought it was going to be the most risky thing I've ever done in my life," adds Luce, who has done similar peace work in Guatemala and other Latin American countries. "But I didn't have any problems. No dirty looks. My going around with judges and police commissioners and prison officials, they were extremely professional in their conduct."

Of course the last thing Haitian officials want now is to create an international incident with the United States, which backed -- and some say orchestrated -- Aristide's removal. There's undoubtedly a French lesson in there somewhere for Luce's students.

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