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The Women of Enron : A New Calling

Deborah Perrotta was an executive assistant for 25 years. When Enron fell, she lost her job — and found a new voice.

Deborah Perrotta thought she’d hit pay dirt at Enron. The career secretary landed a $50,000-a-year job as a senior administrative assistant in Rebecca Mark’s Enron International division in January 1998. Things were looking up at last. Barely a year earlier, the West Orange, New Jersey, native and her husband, Robert, had moved to the oil town with hopes of starting life anew after he lost his job. The Enron options and retirement benefits that Perrotta received kept the couple’s hopes alive even after Bob was again laid off in 1999.

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Many of those hopes died on December 5, 2001, the day Perrotta and 4,500 of her colleagues were unceremoniously fired by a bankrupt Enron. It would be nearly a year before she received any severance pay or found steady work again. Worse, the loss of roughly $40,000 in retirement savings meant the end of a long-cherished dream: hosting the wedding of their eldest daughter, Cara, the following September.

Remarkably, there is a lightness in Perrotta’s face as she recalls the tumultuous 12 months following that painful day. “It was a very fulfilling year,” she says. “It really changed my life around.”

Even though it was a catastrophe, Perrotta also views the collapse of Enron as a seminal event in her life — one that finally set her on a course that is both more meaningful to her and, she says, of greater value to others. In the ashes of Enron, Perrotta, 54, found her calling.

For the past year, Perrotta worked as a field organizer for the Texas Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO in Washington, DC. Her first job there, which she held from Aug-ust 2002 until July of this year, was to visit campuses of public schools in Galena Park, on the eastern fringe of Houston. During lunch hours and free periods, Perrotta evangelized to nonunion teachers, many of them young, about the benefits of union membership. She put particular emphasis on pensions and retire-ment planning, including the vital importance of portfolio diversification. It was hard-won knowledge.

“I became an activist so that I could speak for people who cannot speak for themselves,” Perrotta says. “You have got to stand up for yourself, and you have got to ask questions. If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything.”

Perrotta had been devoted to Enron, but it didn’t take her long to stand up once the company collapsed. Sitting at home, Perrotta grew increasingly irked by what she saw as thinly veiled opportunism by the politicians and lawyers who were gathering around the cameras. A few weeks after the company filed for bankruptcy, she sat down at her computer and printed several oversized signs that read, “How we got raped by Enron.” She pasted them in the rear windows of her white Ford Expedition, drove downtown, and parked directly across the street from Enron headquarters, where she sat in silent, solitary protest.

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Some weeks later, Perrotta learned that the Reverend Jesse Jackson was coming to town to offer emotional support to former Enron employees. A Catholic and a Republican, Perrotta was no fan of Jackson’s. Still, she felt compelled to go to the meeting.

When she arrived in the second-floor conference room of the Houston Hyatt on January 24, 2002, Perrotta was embarrassed to find fewer than a dozen people there, many of them Jackson’s own staff. Unfazed by the apathetic showing, Jackson welcomed the group to a round table in the center of the room. Perrotta was startled to find herself seated next to him. With nothing to lose, she turned to Jackson and boldly confessed that she didn’t believe in everything that he stood for, but promised that if he could help the employees, she would support him “100%.” Towering over her, Jackson smiled affectionately and laughed out loud.

Four days later, Perrotta, along with dozens of former Enroners, gathered on the steps of Houston’s Antioch Baptist Church (which, coincidentally, is located next door to the Enron tower) and filed into three large tour buses headed for Washington, DC. The party drove through the night, stopping at a few state capitals for camera crews and for rallies with supporters. At each juncture, Jackson pushed Perrotta to the front, encouraging her to speak to the waiting crowds.

Jackson’s instincts were impeccable. As it turned out, Perrotta made a stellar spokeswoman. The modest brunette seems to have almost no ego, despite saucerlike dark eyes that are just gentle enough, apparently, to persuade even several presidential candidates to do her bidding.

In Washington, the group met with Senators Tom Daschle, Joseph Lieberman, and Edward Kennedy. Perrotta pleaded for help in recouping severance pay, health insurance, and retirement money for herself and her peers. That evening, she attended the State of the Union address on Capitol Hill in a front-row balcony seat that had been reserved for Lieberman’s wife, who instead watched the address from home. Better still, by that summer, most former Enron employees would receive a lump severance payment, in no small part thanks to Senate pressure.

Shortly before they left Washington, the exhausted Enroners met with Richard Gephardt, the Democratic congressman from Missouri, and several officials of the AFL-CIO. Among them was Damon Silvers, an associate general counsel for the union in Washington. By May, Perrotta had joined several AFL-CIO representatives on a 12-city tour of the United States to promote labor rights, including employee representation on 401(k) committees — still her pet policy.

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Meanwhile, back in Houston, Perrotta continued to look for work. But it became increasingly obvious that no one wanted to hire a former Enron staffer, especially one who had been speaking up for workers’ rights. In the end, it was AFL-CIO lawyer Silvers who recommended Perrotta for the teachers’ union recruiting program in Galena Park.

She has proved an exceptional organizer. When Perrotta started in August 2002, just 80 of the 1,100 teachers in the school district were union members. Membership stands today at 256. In July 2003, Perrotta was offered a supervisory position in a school district in the northern suburbs of Dallas. While the promotion may mean commuting for several months until she and Bob can sell their Houston home, Perrotta immediately accepted. Her new salary, nearly $45,000 with benefits, almost matches her pay at Enron — minus the many benefits and perks, of course.

“It’s not bad,” Perrotta says with a grin. “When I was working at Enron, we were comfortable. Now I am happier.”

The Women of Enron