Archive for the ‘Auto industry’ Category

Punishments that Fit the Corporate Crime

Thursday, May 28th, 2015

gm-ignition-switch-accident-victims_0Now that several large banks have pled guilty to criminal charges, the next addition to the list of corporate felons could be General Motors, which is reportedly negotiating a settlement with the Justice Department to resolve an investigation of the company’s concealment of an ignition-switch problem that has been linked to more than 100 deaths.

Another criminal investigation is targeting Takata Corp., whose defective airbags recently prompted the record recall of 34 million vehicles. Its airbags can explode violently when activated, shooting shrapnel that has been tied to six deaths and more than 100 injuries.

In reporting the possibility of a plea by GM, the New York Times said the company is likely to be hit with a record financial penalty, suggesting that this will be the main punishment faced by the automaker. Presumably, Takata will also have to fork over a substantial sum.

Federal prosecutors have been extracting larger and larger amounts from companies in settlement deals, but are monetary penalties enough when it comes to corporate misconduct that results in serious physical injuries and loss of life?

Of course, there is a long tradition in the tort system of attaching dollar amounts to victims of business negligence, but when the wrongdoing is serious enough to warrant criminal charges, the culprits should not be able to buy their way out of jeopardy.

Ideally, such cases should also include the filing of charges against individuals, especially top executives, who could face the loss of their personal liberty. In most instances, however, prosecutors say it is too difficult to prove individual culpability.

How, then, could companies be punished beyond financial penalties (which are often easily affordable and tax deductible)? Short of using the corporate death penalty (charter revocation), which in the case of a large firm such as GM would cause economic upheaval, there are other options to consider.

It’s frequently said that corporations cannot be put in prison, but there are ways of restricting their freedom to operate. These involve excluding them from certain markets or putting restrictions on the scope or size of their business. Such penalties already exist in the form of debarment from federal contracting or disqualification from certain regulated activities.

The problem is that prosecutors and regulators are wary of making full use of these sanctions, as seen in the fact that the banks that recently pleaded guilty to criminal charges of rigging the foreign currency market were promptly given waivers by the SEC from rules that would have disqualified them from the securities industry.

Perhaps the bank offenses were too abstract to engender much public anger over the way they were allowed to escape some of the more serious consequences for their crimes. But I’d like to think that companies found to have caused death and dismemberment will be expected to do more than write a check.

The 2014 Corporate Rap Sheet

Wednesday, December 31st, 2014

gotojailThe bull market in corporate crime surged in 2014 as large corporations continued to pay hefty fines and settlements that seem to do little to deter misbehavior in the suites. Payouts in excess of $1 billion have become commonplace and some even reach into eleven figures, as seen in the $16.65 billion settlement Bank of America reached with the Justice Department to resolve federal and state claims relating to the practices of its Merrill Lynch and Countrywide units in the run-up to the financial meltdown.

This came in the same year in which BofA reached a $9.3 billion settlement with the Federal Housing Finance Agency concerning the sale of deficient mortgage-backed securities to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and in which the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau ordered the bank to pay $727 million to compensate consumers harmed by deceptive marketing of credit card add-on products.

The BofA cases helped boost the total penalties paid by U.S. and European banks during the year to nearly $65 billion, a 40 percent increase over the previous year, according to a tally by the Boston Consulting Group reported by the Wall Street Journal.

Among the other big banking cases were the following:

  • France’s BNP Paribas pleaded guilty to criminal charges and paid an $8.9 billion penalty to U.S. authorities in connection with charges that it violated financial sanctions against countries such as Sudan and Iran.
  • Citigroup paid $7 billion to settle federal charges relating to the packaging and sale of toxic mortgage-backed securities.
  • U.S. and European regulators fined five banks — JP Morgan Chase, Citigroup, HSBC, Royal Bank of Scotland and UBS — a total of more than $4 billion after accusing them of conspiring to manipulate the foreign currency market.
  • Credit Suisse pleaded guilty to one criminal count of conspiring to aid tax evasion by U.S. customers and paid a penalty of $2.6 billion.
  • JPMorgan Chase paid $1.7 billion to victims of the Ponzi scheme perpetuated by Bernard Madoff to settle civil and criminal charges that it failed to alert authorities about large numbers of suspicious transactions made by Madoff while it was his banker.

Banks were not the only large corporations that found themselves in legal trouble during the year. The auto industry faced a never-ending storm of controversy over its safety practices. Toyota was hit with a $1.2 billion criminal penalty by U.S. authorities for concealing defects from customers and regulators. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration fined General Motors $35 million (the maximum allowable) for failing to promptly report an ignition switch defect that has been linked to numerous deaths. Hyundai and its subsidiary Kia paid $300 million to settle allegations that they misstated the greenhouse gas emissions of their vehicles.

Toxic dumping. Anadarko Petroleum paid $5.1 billion to resolve federal charges that had been brought in connection with the clean-up of thousands of toxic waste sites around the country resulting from decades of questionable practices by Kerr-McGee, now a subsidiary of Anadarko.

Pipeline safety. The California Public Utilities Commission proposed that $1.4 billion in penalties and fined be imposed on Pacific Gas & Electric in connection with allegations that the company violated federal and state pipeline safety rules before a 2010 natural gas explosion that killed eight people.

Contractor fraud. Supreme Group BV had to pay $288 million in criminal fines and a $146 million civil settlement in connection with allegations that it grossly overcharged the federal government while supplying food and bottled water to U.S. personnel in Afghanistan.

Bribery. The French industrial group Alstom consented to pay $772 million to settle U.S. government charges that it bribed officials in Indonesia and other countries to win power contracts. Earlier in the year, Alcoa paid $384 million to resolve federal charges that it used a middleman to bribe members of Bahrain’s royal family and other officials to win lucrative contracts from the Bahraini government.

Price-fixing. Japan’s Bridgestone Corporation pleaded guilty to charges that it conspired to fix prices of anti-vibration rubber auto parts and had to pay a criminal fine of $425 million.

Defrauding consumers. AT&T Mobility had to pay $105 million to settle allegations by the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communications Commission that it unlawfully billed customers for services without their prior knowledge or consent.

The list goes on. Whether the economy is strong or weak, many corporative executives cannot resist the temptation to break the law in the pursuit of profit.

Note: For fuller dossiers on some of the companies listed here, see my Corporate Rap Sheets.

Getting Even Tougher on Corporate Crime

Thursday, December 4th, 2014

blankenshipWest Virginia’s coal country is not very fond of the Environmental Protection Agency these days, but another part of the federal government — the Justice Department — is viewed more sympathetically.

The reason is that Don Blankenship, the most reviled man in the state, is being prosecuted. A federal grand jury recently handed up an indictment with four criminal counts against Blankenship (photo), the former CEO of Massey Energy, for conspiring with other managers to violate safety laws on a massive scale, thereby creating the conditions that led to the 2010 Upper Big Branch disaster, in which 29 miners were killed.

It is a rarity for criminal charges to reach the CEO level, and if any chief executive deserves such special treatment, Blankenship is the one. The indictment paints a picture of a manager who was utterly contemptuous of federal safety regulations and thus of the safety and well being of his employees. He is said to have called the use of workers for safety compliance “ridiculous” and “crazy.”

What’s really crazy is that Blankenship is not facing even more serious charges. He could theoretically spend as much as 31 years in prison, but if convicted he would likely serve much less time. The indictment makes a compelling case for the conspiracy charges, but they also detail activity that could easily be construed as homicide or at least negligent homicide. In fact, back in 2010 there were calls for Blankenship to be charged with murder.

Blankenship is emblematic of a type of business misconduct that brings about serious harm or even death to workers, consumers or the general public. This kind of brazen corporate behavior originated in the 19th Century and persisted in the 20th, especially in industries such as tobacco and asbestos. A new investigation by the Center for Public Integrity documents steps by the petroleum industry beginning in the late 1940s to suppress evidence linking benzene, an ingredient in gasoline, to leukemia.

It was not long ago that business apologists were claiming that such egregious cases of corporate irresponsibility were a thing of the past. We were made to believe that Big Business had cleaned up its act and was now taking the lead in promoting ethical and sustainable practices.

That notion took a beating in 2010, which saw not only the Upper Big Branch explosion but also the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico brought about by the negligence of BP, Transocean and Halliburton.

This year corporate wrong-doing is once again in full bloom. At the center of it has been General Motors, the company whose dangerous Corvair compact gave rise to the modern public interest movement. Fifty years later, the new, post-bankruptcy GM is again facing charges of endangering lives through foolish cost-cutting measures.

GM, however, is not alone this time. We’re seeing negligent behavior by other automakers, including the Japanese, and now a scandal is growing over the practices of airbag supplier Takata, which is alleged to have covered up evidence that its products were rupturing and spewing metal debris at drivers. Now the company is resisting calls in the U.S. for a nationwide recall.

For a long time, the discussion on business misconduct has focused on the need to bring criminal charges against top executives. That’s a worthy goal, but we need to give more attention to the nature of the charges. A CEO who has knowingly placed human lives in danger should be prosecuted as toughly as street criminals who do the same. Potential penalties along the lines of life imprisonment may be the only thing that can deter the Don Blankenships of the world.

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.