Archive for the ‘Auto industry’ Category

The Second Coming of Henry Ford?

Thursday, August 7th, 2014

River-Rouge-PlantElon Musk apparently wants us to think of him as the second coming of Henry Ford. The CEO of electric carmaker Tesla Motors is planning to build a $5 billion, 6,500-worker battery “gigafactory” that is being likened to Ford’s legendary River Rouge complex in Dearborn, Michigan. Musk has a group of western states desperately competing for the project.

It remains to be seen whether the Tesla plant will rise to the level of Ford’s integrated industrial wonder (photo), which in the 1920s was the largest manufacturing site in the world. Yet the two facilities will have something in common: being built in part with taxpayer money. As Robert Lacey tells it in his 1986 book Ford: The Men and the Machine, Ford arranged for the federal government to pay $3.5 million for the deepening of the Rouge River and the draining of marshes at the plant site as part of the contract Ford had been granted to produce Eagle boats for the U.S. Navy.

Tesla has also received help from Uncle Sam — in the form of a $465 million loan it repaid last year — but now the company has its hand out to those states vying to be chosen for the gigafactory. It’s been understood for months that the winner of the competition would have to put serious money on the table, but now Musk has indicated exactly how much in the way of subsidies will be required: 10 percent of the cost of the plant, or about $500 million.

The company and its apologists insist that the demand is not excessive, noting that Volkswagen got a bit more for its assembly plant in Tennessee despite the fact that it is employing a lot fewer workers than Tesla promises. That’s true. Volkswagen got $554 million from state and local agencies, and that is far from the largest subsidy package ever awarded in the United States. In the Good Jobs First Megadeals compilation, it ranks 24th.

Yet such a comparison is problematic, because it is far from clear that the $500 million figure will be the total subsidy burden the winner of the Tesla auction would take on. In all likelihood, the $500 million would be only the up-front cost, while state and local governments would also probably have to offer long-term tax benefits that would end up being much more expensive.

This happens all the time. In the case of Volkswagen, public officials were initially mum about the estimated total size of the package, and it was only through reporting by the Chattanooga Times Free Press that the real costs came to light. By the way, VW is now getting $274 million more for a plant expansion.

Another egregious case of low-balling subsidy estimates happened in Mississippi, where officials initially put the cost of the package given to Nissan in 2000 at $295 million. Yet, as my colleague Kasia Tarczynska and I showed, when all was said and done, state and local agencies in the Magnolia State gave the carmaker subsidies worth more than $1.3 billion.

The odds that Tesla will seek to maximize its subsidy payoff are increased by the fact that it just announced a partnership with Panasonic. The Japanese company managed to extract a subsidy worth more than $100 million from New Jersey to move its North American headquarters a short distance.

Along with underestimated costs, there is a chance that projections about the Tesla project are overstating potential benefits. Particularly suspicious is the claim of 6,500 jobs. Given current manufacturing practices, a workforce of that size is highly unlikely. I can’t help but suspect that the number may include temporary construction jobs or supplier jobs. It’s worth noting that the heavily subsidized advanced battery projects in Michigan mostly created jobs only in the hundreds, the best case being the 1,000 positions created at A123 Systems before it went bankrupt.

And even if Tesla beats those figures, there’s the question of how good the jobs will be. The Japanese and German auto assembly transplants have had to set their wages close to those of the Detroit automakers (though benefits are substantially lower). Will Tesla feel any pressure to create decently paying jobs, or will it take advantage of a struggling area such as Reno, Nevada (one of the possible sites) or the low-wage, anti-union climate of Texas (another contender) to keep compensation levels low?

Fortunately, it is not entirely up to the company. The upside to the insistence on a big subsidy package by Tesla is that states attach some job quality standards to their awards. From this perspective, the best outcome would be for Tesla to choose Nevada, which ranked first in the rankings my colleagues and I at Good Jobs First did on state practices in this area.

Even if Elon Musk does not agree with Henry Ford’s famous wage boosting policy, he won’t be able to exploit his workers as thoroughly as he is doing to taxpayers.

Real Abuses, Sham Reforms

Thursday, July 17th, 2014

bosses_900It is now a full century since the Progressive Era ended some of the worst abuses of concentrated economic power. This year is the 100th anniversary of the Clayton Act and the Federal Trade Commission Act.   It is 103 years since the dissolution of the Standard Oil trust, 108 years since the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act.

Yet even a casual reading of the business news these days suggests that we live in an economy disturbingly similar to the age of the robber barons.

Back then, the trusts shifted their incorporation to states such as New Jersey and Delaware that were willing to rewrite their business laws to accommodate the needs of oligopolies. Today large corporations are reincorporating themselves in foreign tax havens to dodge taxes. The practice is reaching epidemic proportions in the pharmaceutical industry.

Back then, unscrupulous drug companies and meatpackers sold adulterated products that could sicken or even kill their customers. Today General Motors is caught in a growing scandal about ignition switch defects that resulted in at least 13 deaths. The news about the automaker’s recklessness grows worse by the day, with the New York Times now reporting that company withheld information from federal regulators about the cause of fatal accidents.

Back then, wheeler-dealers such as James Fisk peddled dubious securities in companies that later collapsed, impoverishing investors. Today we’re still trying to get over the impact of the toxic mortgage-backed securities that the big banks packaged and sold during the housing bubble. Just the other day, Citigroup became the latest of those banks to settle charges brought by the Justice Department. Yet the $7 billion extracted from Citi, like the amounts obtained from the other banks, will cause little pain for the mammoth institution and will thus do little to deter future misconduct. The provision in the settlement for “consumer relief” is too little, too late.

And, of course, back then, the trusts got to be trusts by eliminating their competition. Today concentration is alive and well. Recently, the second largest U.S. tobacco company, Reynolds American, proposed a takeover of Lorillard, the number three in the industry. If this deal goes through, it won’t be long before Reynolds tries to marry Altria/Philip Morris, putting virtually the entire carcinogenic industry in the hands of one player, the way it was a century ago during the reign of the American Tobacco Company, aka the Tobacco Trust.

The movement toward a Media Trust just accelerated with the revelation that Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox, already huge, is seeking to take over Time Warner. The deal would put a mind-boggling array of entertainment properties under one roof. Murdoch offered to sell off Time Warner’s CNN – a meaningless concession given that the news network has struggled to survive against Murdoch’s despicable Fox News. Murdoch’s move comes as another media octopus, Comcast, is awaiting approval for its deal to take over Time Warner’s previously spun off cable business.

While we have all too many indications of a new Gilded Age, still scarce are signs of an effective response. We’ve got a good amount of muckraking journalism and a fair number of people (and even a few elected officials) who calls themselves progressives. Yet somehow this does not add up to a movement that can take a real bite out of corporate crime.

Part of the problem is that many of those in power professing progressive values are not serious about challenging corporate power. Some historians argue that the original Progressives were, like the New Dealers who came later, mainly concerned with saving capitalism from itself rather than changing the system. Yet they still managed to impose significant restrictions on big business through antitrust and other forms of regulation.

Today’s progressive officials often seem to want nothing more than to give the appearance of reform. That’s the story at the Justice Department, which has raised settlement levels and extracted some token guilty pleas but still allows corporations to buy their way out of serious legal jeopardy. Meanwhile, antitrust enforcement is tepid, and as the GM case increasingly shows, regulation is often a joke.

A resurgence of robber-baron behavior requires real, not sham reform.

Congress’s Corporate Accountability Charades

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

bosses_900In recent days we’ve seen reprises of that old stand-by from the Congressional repertoire: hearings in which members of the House and Senate express indignation at corporate misconduct. Like similar performances that have come before, these events provided some short-term gratification but in all likelihood will ultimately prove frustrating.

The designated whipping boys this week were General Motors and Caterpillar. Both are legitimate targets. GM is embroiled in one of the worst safety scandals in its history as a result of mounting evidence that for years it concealed evidence of an ignition-switch defect that has been tied to a large number of deadly accidents. Caterpillar is under the gun because of a new Senate report accusing it of using accounting gimmicks to avoid more than $2 billion in federal taxes.

At a hearing of the Senate Commerce committee, GM chief executive Mary Barra was confronted with statements such as “The public is very skeptical of GM,” “GM is not forthcoming” and “I think this goes beyond unacceptable. I believe this is criminal.”

The amazing thing is that these statements were coming from both Democrats and Republicans, who differed little in their critique of the automaker. The same can, for the most part, be said about Barra’s only slightly milder interrogation by the House Energy and Commerce investigative subcommittee. Several Republicans sought to score some political points by emphasizing GM’s previous status as a government-controlled corporation, and Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn asked Barra whether the company’s safety lapses were related to the federal bailout (Barra sidestepped the question). Yet they did not press too hard in that direction.

The transcripts of the two GM hearings (available via Nexis) paint a very different picture of Congress from what we usually see these days. As Rep. Peter Welch of Vermont stated in the House hearing: “I have to congratulate General Motors for doing the impossible. You’ve got Republicans and Democrats working together.”

There was a similar seriousness of purpose and absence of simple-minded partisanship in the Senate hearing on Caterpillar. Subcommittee chair Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who has done extensive work to highlight corporate tax dodging, was of course aggressive in grilling company executives about Caterpillar’s funneling of vast amounts of profit through a tiny Swiss subsidiary to take advantage of an artificially low tax rate.

Yet the company did not get much sympathy from the Republican members of the subcommittee either, though Wisconsin’s Ron Johnson did manage to interject a reference to “our uncompetitive tax system.”

The unfortunate truth is that hearings such as these end up being nothing but a charade in which members of Congress pretend for a while to be tough on an egregious case of corporate malfeasance before they go back to doing the bidding of the monied interests.

For example, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who was the one calling GM’s behavior “unacceptable” and “criminal,” sought to weaken the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau last year. Nevada Sen. Dean Heller, who joined in the critical questioning of Barra, once introduced a bill to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from introducing “job-crushing regulations.”

The problem extends to Democrats as well. Veteran Rep. John Dingell, who was awarded special deference at the House hearing, has long-standing ties to General Motors and the other big U.S. automakers, which have been among his strongest political supporters. His wife Debbie Dingell worked for GM for 30 years. When the 87-year-old Dingell announced earlier this year that he plans to retire from Congress, a GM spokesperson said:  “As a champion of the auto industry, John Dingell had no peer.”

If anything, the inclination of members of Congress to do the bidding of business will only increase, now that the Supreme Court has struck down limits on total amounts wealthy individuals can give to candidates, party committees and PACs. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote: “Money in politics may at times seen repugnant to some, but so too does much of what the First Amendment vigorously protects.”

By once again equating money with speech, Roberts is ensuring that those with the most of it, including giant corporations, are the ones to which Congress, apart from brief periods of public interest grandstanding, will bow.

Still Unsafe At Any Speed

Thursday, March 20th, 2014

unsafeIn a resounding affirmation of the principle that the cover-up is worse than the crime, federal prosecutors emphasized Toyota’s deceptive practices in announcing that the carmaker will pay $1.2 billion to settle a criminal charge relating to the sudden acceleration controversy. The Justice Department press release uses just about every synonym for dishonesty in describing Toyota’s misdeeds.

“The company admits that it misled U.S. consumers by concealing and making deceptive statements,” the release states, adding that the company “gave inaccurate facts to Members of Congress.” Later it says that Toyota “was hiding” critical information from federal regulators and that it made public a “false timeline.” U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara alleges that the company “cared more about savings than safety and more about its own brand and bottom line than the truth.”

Such strong talk is gratifying, but Toyota, like so many other corporate miscreants, was offered a deferred prosecution agreement in place of an outright conviction. This was made somewhat more palatable by the provision in the agreement that bars the company from deducting the penalty amount from its taxes.

Prosecutors used the announcement to convey a thinly veiled warning to General Motors that it too will have to pay a substantial amount to resolve its own legal entanglements on safety issues. Bharara declared: “Companies that make inherently dangerous products must be maximally transparent, not two-faced. That is why we have undertaken this landmark enforcement action. And the entire auto industry should take notice.”

GM’s announcement several weeks ago that it was recalling hundreds of thousands of its small cars because of an ignition switch problem mushroomed into a major scandal as information came to light suggesting that the company had dragged its feet in dealing with the issue, even though it was linked to 13 deaths. Federal regulators, which had received several hundred complaints relating to the problem, were also criticized for being slow to act. Both Congress and the Justice Department have launched investigations of the matter.

In recent days, GM has tried to spin the situation to its advantage, with CEO Mary Barra putting herself out front and making extravagant promises that such a safety lapse would never happen again. Living up to such a commitment will be even more difficult for GM than it was for Toyota, which used similar p.r. stratagems during earlier phases of its controversy and ultimately failed.

After all, the history of GM is filled with examples of irresponsibility on safety issues. It is now 50 years since Ralph Nader exposed the defects of GM’s Corvair, prompting the company to spy on him and thus inadvertently give a boost to the nascent corporate accountability movement.

Later, GM failed to act when presented with reports that poorly sealed panels on some of its cars could cause dangerous levels of carbon monoxide to leak into the passenger compartment. After some deaths were attributed to the problem in the late 1960s, the company finally recalled 2.5 million cars to repair the defect.

During the 1970s and 1980s the company was frequently criticized by environmentalists and consumer advocates for its efforts to weaken federal rules on emissions and for its resistance to regulations requiring passive restraints such as airbags in all automobiles. In 1990 GM finally agreed to put air bags in all of its U.S. cars starting in 1995.

In 1992 the New York Times published an investigation concluding that GM had recognized as early as 1983 that its pickup trucks with side-mounted gas tanks were highly dangerous but took no action until 1988, even then saying the change was for design rather than safety reasons. During that period, more than 300 people were killed in collisions in which the tanks exploded.

GM resisted recalling trucks with the side-mounted tanks even after the federal government asked it to do so. Instead, it launched a campaign against safety advocates and plaintiffs’ lawyers. In 1994 the company reached a settlement with the U.S. Transportation Department under which the federal government gave up on its effort to get GM to recall the trucks in exchange for which the company agreed to contribute $51 million to auto safety programs. GM still faced a series of personal injury lawsuits in connection with the exploding gas tanks, including one in which a Los Angeles jury awarded victims $4.9 billion in damages. GM appealed, and the case was later settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.

It remains to be seen how much GM has to pay in fines and settlements for its current ignition switch scandal, but it will take a lot of punishment to get a company with such a long history of safety lapses to change its ways for good.

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New in CORPORATE RAP SHEETS: a profile of Yum Brands and its controversies relating to wage & hour violations, sanitation lapses and animal cruelty.

Conservatives Discover the Wisdom of Workers

Thursday, February 20th, 2014

vw-westmorelandThe United Auto Workers defeat in the Volkswagen representation election has conservatives gloating, even though their victory came only after they abandoned many of their core principles in favor of political expediency. Elected officials who typically denounce government interference in the market used their pulpits to meddle in a private business matter. Editorialists at the Wall Street Journal, who normally sing the praises of large corporations, declared that the vote showed that “workers are smarter than management.”

Such bogus industrial populism is easy to bandy about when the workers in question were pressured into voting against their own best interests. Typically, it is management and anti-union consultants who are responsible for defeating an organizing drive. In Tennessee, the company remained neutral and the intimidation campaign was carried out by politicians and out-of-state conservative ideologues. Leading the assault was U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, who brazenly promoted the apparent lie that a vote for the union would mean that a new VW assembly line for SUVs would be sited in Mexico instead of Chattanooga.

The Journal admitted that Corker may have been “impolitic” but it defended his “right to free speech.” State politicians also did damage, raising the prospect that VW, which got a $554 million subsidy package when it opened the plant, should not expect future financial assistance if the workers dared to choose the union.

The enthusiasm for the wisdom of the rank and file on the part of the Journal stands in stark contrast to its reaction when workers at VW’s original U.S. plant in Westmoreland, Pennsylvania asserted themselves. Frustrated at the low pay rates they were receiving in comparison to their counterparts at the Big Three plants in Detroit, the unionized VW workers staged a wildcat strike in 1978. Stopping production of VW’s Rabbit, the workers rallied under the slogan “No Money, No Bunny.”

A front-page story in the Journal about the strike (10/13/1978) included the following subheadline: “Pennsylvania Walkout Stirs Doubts on Cost, Stability of American Work Force.” The article quoted a Nissan official as saying: “The Volkswagen strike is quite upsetting to us.”

It was also quite upsetting to VW. Even after the walkout ended, labor-management relations remained hostile at the plant. VW, which was also confronted with a lawsuit charging that it discriminated against black employees, shut down the operation in 1988.

It is likely that VW managers had that experience in mind when they decided not to fight the UAW. Southern U.S. conservatives, like other pro-business types, push the notion that American workers need to accept the realities of a globalized market. What those conservatives refuse to recognize is that one of those realities, at least as far as VW is concerned, is an acceptance of unions and a cooperative approach to labor relations through works councils of the kind that the company wants to adopt in Tennessee. In fact, VW, like other German companies, has a supervisory board with labor representatives.

The latest irony in this situation is that Bernd Osterloh, a labor member of VW’s supervisory board and the head of its works council in Germany, reacted to the election results in Tennessee by saying he might block any future investments by VW in the Southern United States because of the hostility to unions. That would demolish the pernicious conventional wisdom that disempowered workers are always an essential ingredient for economic growth.

Osterloh’s statement helps to bring into focus the truth about the progressive deunionization of U.S. business. Rather than being part of an alignment with the realities of globalization, it is making the United States more of an outlier compared to other wealthy nations. Like this country’s refusal to accept the kind of single payer health insurance that is the norm in the developed world, the ongoing attack on unions puts us out of step with the way a modern economy is supposed to operate and reinforces the dangerous growth of economic inequality.

Worker Freedom in Tennessee

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

vw_uaw2Major employers facing a union organizing drive, particularly in the South, have long relied on small-business owners, elected officials and other conservative voices to mount a counter-attack.

An interesting variation on this theme is taking place in Tennessee, where Volkswagen seems to be welcoming a United Auto Workers organizing effort at its plant in Chattanooga, yet local as well as national anti-union ideologues are on the warpath nonetheless. They are frantically trying to persuade VW workers to reject the union in a secret-ballot vote scheduled later this month. The company reportedly decided not to simply recognize the UAW, which has gotten a majority of the workers to sign membership cards, because of intense pressure from figures such as Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, who gained notoriety for opposing the federal rescue of the auto industry.

(Full disclosure: I am a member of the United Auto Workers via the National Writers Union/UAW Local 1981.)

VW has rejected the usual practice of foreign automakers, which despite any cooperative relationships with unions at home, have embraced American-style anti-union animus in their U.S. transplants. For many years, the UAW has sought to overcome this intransigence, as seen most recently in the ongoing effort to organize the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi.

VW wants to import the works council system of labor-management relations it has in Germany, but in the absence of a certified collective bargaining representative, that would amount to an illegal company-dominated union under U.S. labor law.

We thus end up with a situation in which a major corporation wanting to employ a set of practices designed to improve productivity and reduce turnover is being vilified by those who regard union avoidance as one of the grand traditions of the South.

Last month, Stephen Moore, who was recently named chief economist of the Heritage Foundation, told a business meeting in Chattanooga that the union effort at VW is “like inserting a cancer cell into a body. That one cancer cell is going to multiply and kill the body.” Anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist is helping to bankroll the opposition, apparently out of a concern that a union advance in Tennessee would impede his fiscal agenda. The National Right to Work Foundation and the Center for Worker Freedom are also involved, though their efforts fell flat when the National Labor Relations Board concluded that neither the UAW nor VW had violated labor law in any way.

Figures such as Moore and Norquist came into prominence as a result of a conservative backlash that big business set into motion three decades ago in response to advances of the labor, environmental and consumer movements. That Frankenstein monster took on a life of its own, and now rightwing groups pursue purist goals even when they conflict with corporate pragmatism — as seen, for example in the tea party push for a government shutdown over the objection of major companies.

These groups operate on the assumption that Americans are inherently conservative and that organizations such as the UAW will lead them astray. Foreign automakers such as Nissan and Toyota have gone along with this notion.

VW seems to have a different view, but for reasons that are generally not acknowledged. It tends to be forgotten that VW was the first foreign automaker to establish an assembly plant in the United States, back in 1978 in Pennsylvania.

After being welcomed by public officials with a subsidy package worth about $100 million — an astounding sum at the time — Volkswagen found that many of the people it hired were unhappy about being paid less than their counterparts at the  Big Three plants. A wildcat strike ensued, catching even the UAW off guard. Stopping production of VW’s Rabbit, the workers chanted “No Money, No Bunny.” The plant, which never recovered from the worker unrest, shut down in 1988.

As opposed to the rightwing caricature of unions as the shock troops for a socialist takeover, VW regards the UAW as a partner that can help ensure the smooth functioning of the plant. If that’s done by giving workers more control over their working life, so much the better.

After years of being at the totally at the mercy of management, Southern autoworkers finally have a chance to play a greater role in controlling their destiny. That’s real worker freedom.

Auto Safety Lapses Evoke the Bad Old Days

Thursday, August 22nd, 2013

Ford_pays__17_4_million_to_settle_recall_801160000_20130801222604_640_480The Big Three carmakers, once considered the epitome of corporate irresponsibility, have been viewed in a more favorable light in recent years.

After their near-death experience of a few years back—during which two of them, General Motors and Chrysler, went bankrupt and had to be rescued by the federal government—the consensus seems to be that they have cleaned up their act. They are also being rewarded in the marketplace, where Detroit’s sales have been booming.

It is true that the Big Three are no longer exclusively focused on gas-guzzling SUVs or death traps such as the Pinto. GM is promoting its electric Volt rather than dodging Michael Moore. Yet there have been some indications recently that the giant automakers may be slipping back into old habits.

Recently, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration fined Ford Motor $17.35 million for taking too long to recall more than 400,000 SUVs that were susceptible to sudden acceleration, a problem that was linked to at least one death and nine injuries in crashes.

If you hadn’t heard about this case, it may have been because NHTSA decided not to issue a press release about the penalty. Word got out and the matter received modest coverage in a few newspapers. It was only the Corporate Crime Reporter that gave the story the prominence it deserved: front-page treatment.

The Ford penalty came a couple of months after Chrysler took the unusual step of refusing to acquiesce to NHTSA’s request that it recall 2.7 million Jeeps the agency contends are defective and prone to fires in the event of rear-impact collisions. Chrysler, now controlled by Italy’s Fiat, later relented but applied the recall to only 1.6 million vehicles. Moreover, its fix for the problem—installing trailer hitches on the vehicles—was dismissed as inadequate by the watchdog Center for Auto Safety, had been responsible for bringing the defect to light.

One would think that Ford, in particular, would be more diligent on safety issues, given the hard lessons of its past. This was the company, after all, that produced those ill-fated Pintos, whose unshielded fuel tanks near the back of the fragile compacts caused horrific explosions in rear-end collisions. Evidence later emerged that Ford was aware of the vulnerability of the gas tank, but went ahead with production of the car. In one civil case a jury awarded $125 million in damages (reduced by the judge to $3.5 million).

Ford was also embarrassed by reports that many of its cars with automatic transmissions produced during the 1970s had a tendency to slip from park into reverse. In 1981 federal regulators forced the company to send warning notices to purchasers of some 23 million vehicles about the problem. Ford may not have been happy about this, but it was a lot less onerous than the massive recall of the cars that had been urged by public interest groups.

In 1996 Ford gave in to public pressure and agreed to pay for replacing ignition switches on more than 8 million cars and trucks that were prone to short circuits that could cause fires. In 1998 State Farm, the largest auto insurer in the United States, sued Ford, charging that the company withheld information about the potential fire hazard from federal regulators and the public.

In 1999 NHTSA hit Ford with a $425,000 fine in the matter. An investigation later revealed evidence that Ford knew about ignition defects, which also sometimes caused vehicles to stall out while making turns, but remained silent. A California judge then ordered the recall of an additional two million vehicles—the first time a U.S. court had ever taken such an action against automaker.

In 2000 Bridgestone/Firestone announced a massive recall of tires, most of which had been installed on Ford sport-utility vehicles and light trucks. Ford alleged that the tire company had known of the defects for several years. Information later came out suggesting that Ford, as well as Bridgestone/Firestone, had known of the tire defects long before the recalls were announced.

An  investigation by the New York Times found that in the 1980s Ford had taken a number of design shortcuts that raised the risk of rollover accidents in what would become its wildly popular Explorer SUV.

What a track record. Let’s hope we are not returning to those bad old days of automaker recklessness.

 

Note: The latest addition to my CORPORATE RAP SHEETS is a dossier on Monsanto, the bully of agricultural biotechnology. Read it here.

Fighting Unions in Bizarro World

Thursday, June 9th, 2011

UAW President Bob King (left)

Some right-wingers in Congress appear to be envious of their state counterparts who have been attacking labor rights in legislatures across the country.

They were given an opportunity to engage in some union-bashing of their own at a recent hearing of the House subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions, known as HELP.

The Right is already up in arms about a National Labor Relations Board complaint charging Boeing with shifting work from its unionized operations in Washington State to union-unfriendly South Carolina to retaliate against worker activism. Now HELP chair Phil Roe of Tennessee is accusing the Board of making it easier for unions to use corporate campaign tactics against employers.

Roe and other panel Republicans seem to be living in a parallel universe in which large numbers of companies are forced to their knees by ruthless corporate campaigns, and workers suffer from intimidation not from anti-union employers but from labor thugs who will stop at nothing in their organizing efforts.

The depiction of this bizarro world was aided by the choice of witnesses at the hearing. There were, of course, no union representatives. Instead, the panel included the president of a janitorial company in Indiana that had been targeted by the Service Employees International Union; a contractor from New Mexico representing the anti-union Associated Builders and Contractors; and a partner in the law firm of Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, which is infamous for its work in opposition to organizing drives.

The only shred of legitimacy came from the one other witness—Catherine Fisk, a law professor from the University of California-Irvine—whose testimony documented the legal justification for the tactics that make up corporate campaigns. But she was mainly ignored by the subcommittee Republicans, who spent most of their time lavishing praise on the two business owners, especially the janitorial executive, David Bego, who has self-published a book about his struggle with the SEIU entitled THE DEVIL AT MY DOORSTEP.

Excerpts from the book on the web begin as follows: “It was a nasty, ugly, three-year, million-dollar war I did not ask for, but had to win. Otherwise, the business I loved would be infiltrated by a scheming labor union determined to undermine employee privacy rights and destroy my version of the American Dream.” Bego also pursued his dream by campaigning aggressively against the Employee Free Choice Act.

Attacks on corporate campaigns have surfaced before in Congress from time to time. These go nowhere, because any restrictions would inevitably violate the First Amendment and the National Labor Relations Act. The real counter-offensive comes in the courts, where large companies such as Smithfield Foods, Wackenhut and Cintas have filed racketeering lawsuits to harass unions engaged in such campaigns.

Apart from the Boeing-NLRB controversy, which has little to do with corporate campaigns, it is curious that a new foray against this union tool would occur now. Unfortunately, there has not been an explosion of aggressive organizing drives, and union density in the private sector is dwindling.

But perhaps Rep. Roe is concerned about what may be coming next in his home state. Roe’s district is not far from Chattanooga, where Volkswagen recently opened a $1 billion auto assembly plant. The workers there currently have no union protection, but that could change. The United Auto Workers has announced a new effort to organize the foreign auto plants clustered in the southeast, and the union’s new president Bob King vows it will be much more vigorous than past initiatives.

The UAW has not indicated which producer will be targeted first, but VW is probably a leading candidate. The German company recently shook up the auto world by revealing that it will keep its labor costs in Chattanooga far below not only those of its Detroit rivals but also those of U.S. plants run by Japanese competitors such as Toyota and Honda. With wage and benefit offerings at rock-bottom level, VW workers might very well be receptive to what the UAW has to offer.

A successful union organizing drive in eastern Tennessee would be a nightmare for the likes of Phil Roe. Fortunately, there is probably little he can do to prevent that possibility.

Behind the GM Euphoria

Friday, November 19th, 2010

Wall Street is always looking for a reason to be euphoric, and it found one this week in the return to the market of General Motors.

Less than two years after filing for bankruptcy and being taken over by the federal government in a $50 billion bailout, the automaker became the darling of investors and commanded a surprisingly high initial price of $33 a share.

Many of those investors had apparently not read the voluminous S-1 Registration Statement that GM filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. If they had, they would have found a document that in its current iteration requires more than 13,000 words to summarize the risk factors facing the company.

Companies are required to be especially candid in warning investors what they may be facing when buying into a company whose shares are being offered for the first time (after its transformation GM is technically a new firm). But this prospectus is amazing. Here are some reasons why.

  • Acknowledging that its current chief executive and chief financial officer are from other fields, the S-1 says the company’s prospects depend on their ability to “quickly learn the automotive industry.”
  • The document reveals : “We have determined that our disclosure controls and procedures and our internal control over financial reporting are currently not effective. The lack of effective internal controls could materially adversely affect our financial condition and ability to carry out our business plan.”
  • The company admits that it has an image problem: “The automotive industry, particularly in the U.S., is very competitive, and our competitors have been very successful in persuading customers that previously purchased our products to purchase their vehicles instead as is reflected by our loss of market share over the past three years. We believe that this is due, in part, to a negative public perception of our products in relation to those of some of our competitors.”

Inexperienced management, poor financial controls and a negative public perception don’t seem to constitute a foolproof recipe for success. But there’s much more to the recitation of risk factors, including the fact that even after the stock offering the U.S. government will remain by far the company’s largest shareholder.

GM reminds potential investors that its bailout came with some strings attached. For one thing, the company is supposed to take steps to maintain its U.S. workforce at or near existing levels. If GM is a shining example of a renaissance of American manufacturing, as some observers would have us believe, it shouldn’t be a problem to maintain jobs in the USA, especially in light of the concessions that members of the United Auto Workers union consented to in order for the bailout to proceed.

But GM’s management hints that it might be interested in even cheaper labor abroad. The S-1’s summary of the company’s current business strategy includes the following:

Enhance manufacturing flexibility. We primarily produce vehicles in locations where we sell them and we have significant manufacturing capacity in medium- and low-cost countries. We intend to maximize capacity utilization across our production footprint to meet demand without requiring significant additional capital investment.

That sounds like a plan to expand foreign rather than domestic production. Elsewhere the company seems to be complaining when it notes that the federal government “may have a greater interest in promoting U.S. economic growth and jobs than other stockholders of the Company.”

GM’s management also bemoans the fact that “restrictions in our labor agreements could limit our ability to pursue or achieve cost savings through restructuring initiatives.”

In other words, the new GM is beginning to sound a lot like the old GM: blaming unionized workers for problems caused by management failures and market conditions. And like its predecessor, the new GM seems to be itching to dump more of those workers in favor of cheap labor abroad. This may be the main reason it is so eager to bring the federal role to an end.

If cost cutting on the backs of workers — rather than real innovation and competent management — is to be the focus of the new GM, it will probably end up in the same mess as its predecessor.

The investor excitement about the new GM may be good news for the federal government, but it could turn out to be just another market bubble.

Final irony: one of the big beneficiaries of the GM initial offering is Goldman Sachs, which in July agreed to pay the feds $550 million to settle charges of having deceived investors. Goldman is making about $9 million as one of GM’s underwriters.

Toyota Totals Its Corporate Social Responsibility Creds

Friday, February 5th, 2010

It would not surprise me if the people who do public relations for Toyota are flipping through their old scrapbooks to cheer themselves up amid the worst crisis in the company’s history.

They might be looking longingly at the 2003 Business Week cover story headlined: “Can Anything Stop Toyota: An Inside Look at How It’s Reinventing the Auto Industry.” Or the 2006 New York Times paean entitled “Toyota Shows Big Three How It’s Done.” Perhaps they are going back even further to the 1997 love letter from Fortune: “How Toyota Defies Gravity.”

These days Toyota is instead experiencing the unbearable heaviness of being exposed as just another unscrupulous automaker that, whether through incompetence or greed, puts many of its customers behind the wheel of a deathtrap.

New revelations that the company knew about the defective gas pedals for years before taking action are all the more scandalous because Toyota had a longstanding reputation not only for business prowess but also for social responsibility.

The company, of course, fostered this image. Its website proclaims: “Toyota has sought harmony between people, society, and the global environment, as well as the sustainable development of society, through manufacturing. Since its foundation, Toyota has continuously worked to contribute to the sustainable development of society through provision of innovative and high-quality products and services that lead the times.”

All big corporations make similar declarations, but Toyota managed to convince outside observers of its pure heart. Last year the Ethisphere Institute included the automaker on its list of “the World’s Most Ethical Companies.” Toyota is ranked 14th on the “Global 100 Most Sustainable Corporations in the World.” And it received the highest score among automakers in a 2006 CERES assessment of corporate governance changes adopted by large corporations to deal with climate change.

Toyota’s environmental reputation is not completely unblemished. In 2007 the company incurred the wrath of green groups for its opposition to an effort to toughen fuel economy standards in the United States (a stance it modified in response to the pressure). In 2003 Toyota agreed to pay $34 million to settle U.S. Environmental Protection Agency charges that it violated the Clean Air Act by selling 2.2 million vehicles with defective smog-control computers.

Overall, however, Toyota was regarded as a much more environmentally enlightened company than Detroit’s Big Three. In fact, its successful efforts to bring hybrids into the auto industry mainstream made it something of a corporate hero in green circles. Michael Brune, who was recently named the new executive director of the Sierra Club, brags that he and his wife have been driving a Prius since 2004.

Toyota’s more laudable stances on sustainability issues did not prevent it from being completely retrograde when it came to respecting the collective bargaining rights of its U.S. employees. It has successfully kept unions out of its heavily-subsidized American plants and has taken advantage of contingent workers to keep down costs in those operations.

Just as good environmental policies do not automatically lead to good labor practices, the current safety scandal shows that a company can be green and totally irresponsible at the same time.  Despite Toyota’s claim about promoting “harmony between people, society, and the global environment,” it appears the company put its business interests ahead of the safety of its customers and others with whom they share the road.

The automaker’s safety scandal is another indication that voluntary corporate social responsibility policies go only so far. It is only through rigorous government regulation, backed by aggressive environmental and other public interest activism, that major corporations can be kept honest.