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Capital One: The political drama

Published July 29, 2004

TAMPA - Lights. Action. Layoffs. Politics.

The scene: A sunbaked sidewalk in front of the 71-acre corporate campus of Tampa's Capital One.

The plot: A small midday political rally held to criticize federal policies that make it too easy for the big Virginia-based credit card corporation to can 1,100 area workers and outsource jobs to cheaper labor overseas.

Capital One's unexpected decision last week to pull up stakes in Tampa, apparently in favor of low-cost jobs in India, proved too irresistible an opportunity for Florida's Democratic Party.

Though it's hard to see what they achieved with the dog and pony show.

In a classic scene of political theater, a handful of area Democrats and union leaders gathered Wednesday along Henderson Road with a hastily assembled backdrop of a dozen party faithful waving John Kerry signs. The speakers condemned President Bush's pro-outsourcing rules and praised candidate John Kerry's proposals to use business incentives to discourage jobs moving overseas.

With Kerry scheduled to accept the Democratic presidential nomination in Boston today, the timing of Tampa's mini protest was hardly subtle.

Standing before several local television cameras, Hillsborough County Commissioner Kathy Castor stressed that the rise of overseas outsourcing was a bane to Tampa Bay and other areas that lack big corporate headquarters. These metro areas compete with each other to recruit units of distant companies with aggressive tax breaks and incentives. But now India, the Philippines and other English-speaking, increasingly well-educated nations are marketing themselves as low-wage alternatives.

Hillsborough County has handed Capital One $3.85-million in tax breaks since it arrived here in 1995. And the company has been reimbursed through Florida's Qualified Target Industry Program for some of the corporate income taxes the company paid.

It was not enough. The company is leaving for seemingly greener pastures, laying off 1,100 workers in three waves through early 2005. Capital One also will leave behind five empty buildings with 550,000-square-feet of office space, along with racquetball and tennis courts, jogging and walking trails, and even a tai chi garden.

State and local incentives are not the problem, Castor said. But federal policies - including rules that feed the outsourcing trend by letting corporations avoid taxes on foreign income - are counter-productive to regional economies.

Kerry wants to change those rules.

Castor said Florida voters again may decide who becomes the next president. And within the state, she added, "Tampa Bay will be ground zero in the elections contest."

Castor introduced the one-and-only Capital One employee brave enough to stand in front of TV cameras and speak his mind about getting a pink slip.

Billy Sickora, 29, started five years ago as a customer service representative at Capital One and was recently promoted to account supervisor. He said his co-workers, including single moms and couples who both work at the company, will take bigger economic hits when they lose their jobs and were reluctant to step forward.

Sickora praised Capital One as a great place to work, but said his five years of loyalty obviously "meant nothing" to the company. He was informed last week that he is scheduled to lose his job in December in the company's second of three planned waves of layoffs.

After he finished answering the local media's questions, Sickora deadpanned: "I have to go back to work before they fire me."

While local Democrats used the Tampa rally to promote Kerry and his stand on outsourcing, it's not at all clear the topic has caught the nation's - or even the party's - attention. No major speaker in the first two days of the Democratic National Convention mentioned the issue.

Even the Democratic Party's own 2004 platform is a bit wishy-washy on the subject. The platform says the government should focus on protecting U.S. workers' jobs, but it does not specifically refer to offshore outsourcing.

Emboldened, some overseas outsourcing experts recently have boasted that the political furor over outsourcing is easing.

"Our impression is that the focus on outsourcing and offshoring in the political arena has abated," Gordon Coburn, chief financial officer of the software outsourcing firm Cognizant, told the Dow Jones news wire earlier this week.

It's going to take a lot more than one sweltering sidewalk rally in Tampa to turn up the political heat on the export of U.S. jobs.

- Robert Trigaux can be reached at or 727 893-8405.

[Last modified July 28, 2004, 23:58:22]

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