Yesterday, a Huffington Post reader commented on my previous article about the campaign against Bruce Wasserstein's gouging of seniors to fatten his own pockets. "Sadly," they said, "nobody cares."
I will admit, it's tough to raise interest in an issue like this. Everything from high gas prices to the crumbling economy to the Iraq war is demanding people's attention -- and that's before you have to deal with the filtering effects of the media that reduces complex issues to trivial "gotcha" games. But a small group of committed citizens got out on the streets yesterday to say "Yes, we do care about the health and well-being of our elders, and the workers who take care of them. Do you?"
Yesterday members of SEIU's Campaign To Improve Assisted Living teamed up with Atria workers and residents for a "rolling premiere" of Brave New Films' video, "Gouging Grandma: Billionaire Bruce Wasserstein," which documents how the CEO of investment house Lazard used an affiliated real-estate fund with Atria as its primary asset to walk away with billions in salary and bonuses, even as the workers toil away for $8-10 an hour, the residents endure increasing neglect, and the shareholders of the fund watch their investment reenact the Titanic's maiden voyage.
The activist group stood outside Lazard's headquarters at Rockefeller Plaza in New York City, handing out free candy while wearing miniature flat-screen televisions displaying the "Gouging Grandma" video. (It's more eye-catching than your typical sidewalk solicitation, that's for certain.) From there the group went on to Lazard's swanky residence at 927 Fifth Avenue, one of the most upscale apartment buildings in the city, to show passersby how Wasserstein makes money. You can see pictures from the campaign at my blog.
It's worth it at this point to take a step back and consider what's going on here. Wasserstein has continually built his tremendous success on his ability to persuade people that bidding on him means a win, even when it ends up solely being a win for him. A year ago, the Wall Street Journal chronicled Wasserstein's ascension to the ranks of the CEO elite with his takeover of Lazard and its associated holdings, quoting extensively from the expose "The Last Tycoons:"
His belief in his own ability to sort of make it up as he goes along and his own personal power fuels him," said a close friend. "You know how envy fuels some people and jealousy. Insecurity fuels different people. His kind of belief in his own power, in his own myth, is, I really believe, what fuels him and his real belief that he's kind of an Ubermensch character..."Bruce also owns an apartment in London and one in Paris. The London apartment is a mere holding pen until he completes the renovation of the massive 38 Belgrave Square as his new home in that city. Bruce also owns a large spread in Santa Barbara, California, and a twenty-six acre Atlantic oceanfront estate -- Cranberry Dune -- on exclusive Further Lane, in East Hampton with a fourteen-thousand-foot home..."
A year later, Lazard has been faltering in the markets worldwide, Wasserstein's own net worth has tanked, and the company's many holdings have left it vulnerable to the credit crunch. Yet Wasserstein continues to reap huge financial bonuses. It's proof positive that past a certain point, wealth makes you immune to gravity, and you can always fail upward.
And yet, despite the millions of crises that affect everyday Americans who work hard just to put food on the table, people have taken notice. Over 5,600 people have signed the petition telling Wasserstein to clean up the business practices of Atria, in which he retains significant holdings, and to treat both workers and residents of the assisted living chain with some dignity. We don't do nearly enough to help our seniors live and retire in comfort in this country, and the idea of letting them be squeezed of all their remaining wealth just to fatten a Wall Street deal-maker's pockets is abhorrent in the utmost.
More than ever, Americans are becoming aware of how excessive corporate greed has starved our country's economy and weakened our ability to build wealth and stability, simply so a few people at the top can get rich at our expense. The idea of gouging the elderly to make one man rich is a particularly egregious example, but it's far from the only one. People like Bruce Wasserstein aren't supposed to be worshiped or admired, while workers who care for the elderly get paid less than nothing and have to endure bad treatment and brutal hours just to get by. It's incumbent on people like you and I to help expose these issues wherever we find them, to restore equity to those who work for a living and want better lives for themselves and their families.