Archive for the ‘Corporate Accountability’ Category

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.

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.

Who Pays for Extreme Weather?

Thursday, November 1st, 2012

As the northeast begins to recover from the ravages of Sandy, there are estimates that the giant storm caused some $20 billion in property damage and up to $30 billion more in lost economic activity.

The question now is who will pay that tab—as well as the cost of future disasters that climate change will inevitably bring about.

It’s already clear that the private insurance industry, as usual, will do everything in its power to minimize its share of the burden. Insurers take advantage of the fact that their policies often do not cover damages from flooding, passing that cost onto policyholders. Most of them are unaware of the fact and fail to purchase federal flood insurance until it is too late.

Insurers also exploit clauses in their policies that impose much higher deductibles for non-flood damages during hurricanes. Fortunately, governors in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut are blocking that maneuver by giving Sandy a different official designation (which is consistent with the National Weather Service’s use of the term “post tropical storm”).  It remains to be seen, nonetheless, to what extent the insurance industry manages to create new obstacles for its customers.

The challenges for homeowners are just one part of the problem. Sandy also did tremendous damage to public infrastructure—roads, bridges, subway stations, etc. Although these are government assets, should the public sector bear the cost of rebuilding?

Many people are arguing, in the words of a New York Times editorial, that “a big storm requires big government.” That’s certainly true when it comes to initial disaster response.  Many more people would have died and much more damage would have occurred but for the efforts of public-sector first responders and even the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which has been remade since its debacle during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

But the challenges associated with extreme weather go far beyond those relief functions. There’s now discussion of the need for New York City to build a huge flood-prevention system along the lines of that in the Netherlands.

Taxpayers, especially those of the 99 percent, should not be forced to assume the entire cost of such a massive undertaking. Extreme weather is clearly linked to climate change, which in turn has been largely caused by the growth in greenhouse gas emissions caused by large corporations, especially those in the fossil fuel industry.

Holding corporations responsible for the consequences of climate change is not a new idea. Yet it is one that all too frequently gets drowned out amid the bloviating of the climate deniers, much of whose funding comes from the very corporate interests they are working to get off the hook.

Back in 2006 BusinessWeek wrote that lawsuits targeting corporations for global warming were “the next wave of litigation,” following in the footsteps of the lawsuits that forced the tobacco industry to cough up hundreds of billions of dollars in compensation. Such cases did materialize. For example, in 2008 lawyers representing the Alaska Native coastal village of Kivalina, which was being forced to relocate because of flooding caused by the changing Arctic climate, filed suit against Exxon Mobil, BP, Chevron, Duke Energy and other oil and utility companies, arguing that they conspired to mislead the public about the science of global warming and this contributed to the problem that was threatening the village.

Such suits have not had an easy time in the courts. The Kivalina case was dismissed by a federal district judge, and that dismissal was recently upheld by the federal court of appeals. A suit brought by the state of California against major automakers for contributing to global warming was also dismissed.

It is far from certain that corporations will continue to get off scot free. In fact, groups such as the Investor Network on Climate Risks argue that the potential liability is quite real and that this should be a matter of concern for institutional shareholders. The Network, a project of CERES, pursues its goals through initiatives such as appeals to the SEC to require better disclosure of climate risks and through friendly engagement with large corporations.

Yet it may be that a more confrontational approach is necessary to build popular support for the idea that big business needs to be held accountable for its big contribution to the climate crisis.

Unfortunately, we are already seeing steps in the opposite direction. The Bloomberg Administration in New York has already announced new storm-related subsidies that will apply not only to struggling mom-and-pop business but also to giant corporations. Unless there is a popular outcry, the city will repeat its mistakes in the wake of the 9-11 attacks of giving huge amounts of taxpayer-funded reconstruction assistance to the likes of Goldman Sachs (see the website of Good Jobs New York for the dismaying details).

The fact that the large New York banks that stand to benefit from Bloomberg’s new giveaways helped finance fossil-fuel projects that contribute to climate change shows just how self-defeating this approach is.

Rather than using public money to help wealthy corporations pay for storm damage on their premises, we should be forcing those companies to pay the costs of addressing the climate crisis they did so much to create.

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New in CORPORATE RAP SHEETS: a dossier on the many environmental and labor relations sins of chemicals giant DuPont.

We Subsidized It

Thursday, August 30th, 2012

We Built It. The Romney campaign and the wider conservative movement believe they have a winner in a slogan designed to refute President Obama’s comment about the role of government assistance to business in favor of an idealized Ayn Rand-style entrepreneurship that needs no stinkin’ public infrastructure.

They are so confident, in fact, that they asked a strangely inapt group of messengers to promote the theme at the Republican Convention: a slew of governors. Since Ronald Reagan, the right has ignored the incongruity of having public officials play a leading role in denouncing the public sector. Yet the GOP governors who took to the stage in Tampa to celebrate up-by-one’s-bootstraps free enterprise raised this hypocrisy to new heights.

Despite their frequently expressed laissez-faire beliefs, they have each presided over deals in which huge sums of taxpayer money have been handed over to large corporations in the name of economic development. The Romney campaign, which has been making deceitful allegations about Obama Administration changes in welfare work requirements, chose to have its big convention theme delivered by some of the biggest proponents of corporate welfare.

Take South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. She used her convention speech to honor her immigrant parents and the clothing company they created, adding: “So, President Obama, with all due respect, don’t tell me that my parents didn’t build their business.” She also gave praise to Boeing, saying that her state “was blessed to welcome a great American company that chose to stay in our country to continue to do business.” She failed to mention that Boeing’s decision to locate its second Dreamliner assembly line in Charleston was more than a little influenced by a state and local subsidy package estimated to be worth more than $900 million.

That deal was originally negotiated by her predecessor Mark Sanford but Haley enthusiastically carried it out and went to great lengths to defend Boeing against Machinists union charges that the move to South Carolina was prompted by anti-union animus. Haley has also made subsidy deals of her own, including the $9 million recently given to Michelin for a tire plant (photo). Haley subsequently told a tire industry conference: “We want to help you do more business in South Carolina and we want to make sure that you grow. That’s our job.”

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell—who told the convention “Big government didn’t build America: You built America!—agreed to give up to $14 million in subsidies to Northrop Grumman to relocate its headquarters to northern Virginia. The move was motivated by a need to be near the company’s dominant customer, the Pentagon, so the subsidies were probably unnecessary and could be seen as a reward for the large contributions the company made to his election campaign.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, another member of the we-built-it chorus, has given in to job blackmail demands by companies threatening to move their operations out of state unless they got big subsidy deals. Kasich’s administration negotiated $100 million packages with both Diebold Inc. and American Greetings Corp.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a rightwing hero for his campaign against public worker collective bargaining rights, used his convention speech to emphasis the importance of letting people “control their own destiny in the private sector.” In July, Walker announced that the state had awarded $62 million in tax credits to Kohl’s to get the retailer to expand its headquarters in the Milwaukee suburb of Menomonee Falls.

And then there’s conservative bad-boy idol Chris Christie, who gave the keynote address at the convention. The New Jersey governor’s administration has been handing out lavish tax credit deals to companies moving from one location in the state to another, including $250 million to Prudential Insurance, $100 million to Panasonic and $81 million to Goya Foods. Since taking office in 2010, Christie has given away more than $1.5 billion in subsidies to corporations.

The examples above focus on bigger deals involving larger companies, since those are the ones with the biggest giveaways of taxpayer funds. Yet many state subsidy programs also serve smaller firms. My colleagues and I at Good Jobs First have assembled data on more than 200,000 subsidy awards from state and local governments around the country in our Subsidy Tracker database. Most of the recipients are not in the Fortune 500.

I cannot resist mentioning that one of those small recipients is First State Manufacturing, a business run by Sher Valenzuela, who is running for Lt. Governor in Delaware on a tea party platform and who was given time at the Republican convention to tell her “I built it” story. In addition to the federal contracts and Small Business Administration loans revealed by Media Matters, information gathered for Subsidy Tracker shows that First State has received more than $29,000 in reimbursements for training costs through Delaware’s Blue Collar Training Grant program—a modest amount but another indication of business dependence on government.

Claims about the autonomy of the private sector are one of the Big Lies of modern conservatism. The real objective of the Right is along the lines of what Gov. Haley told that tire industry conference: to make sure government serves business through subsidies, deregulation, tax minimization and weakening of unions.

To the companies receiving these forms of assistance to expand their business, one could easily adopt the language of President Obama and say “you didn’t build that alone.” The truth is that both liberals and conservatives believe that government should aid the private sector. The difference between the two is in what is expected in return. Liberals make an effort (albeit inadequate) to impose some accountability, whereas the Right believes that business should be able to take all it wants with no strings attached. The debate over whether to limit government should really be one on whether there will be limits on corporate power.

ALEC Staggers But Will it Fall?

Thursday, May 31st, 2012

Wal-Mart’s decision to drop its membership in the American Legislative Exchange Council is a milestone in the remarkable effort to drive a wedge between ALEC and the large corporations that have used the organization to promote their self-serving policy agenda at the state level.

At least 18 companies are reported to have cuts ties to ALEC in the face of a pressure campaign spearheaded by groups such as Color of Change, Common Cause, People for the American Way and the Center for Media and Democracy.

The campaign—which has also prevailed against the likes of Amazon.com, Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, McDonald’s and Procter & Gamble—is already one of the most successful corporate accountability initiatives ever undertaken, and more wins are likely to occur. Yet there are also high hurdles to overcome.

Those companies that have succumbed to the anti-ALEC pressure are pretty much all consumer products firms that were concerned about the possibility of boycotts on the part of customers outraged at ALEC’s role in promoting “stand your ground” laws like the one in Florida at the center of the controversy over the shooting of Trayvon Martin.

A decisive win against ALEC will require splitting off a much larger portion of ALEC’s sizeable corporate membership, including companies that are not fazed by consumer unrest. Quite a few firms of this sort are represented on ALEC’s Private Enterprise Board, whose membership roll reads like a rogue’s gallery of corporate irresponsibility.

The pharmaceutical industry, which has fought countless battles over pricing and safety and has been hit with billions of dollars in fines for illegal marketing practices, has several representatives on the board, including the senior vice president of its trade association PhRMA and officials from Bayer, GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer.

Big tobacco, another battle-hardened industry, is represented by officials from Altria and Reynolds American. The national chair of the board, W. Preston Baldwin, is listed as being affiliated with the corporate strategy consulting firm Centerpoint360, but he used to be an executive with the chewing tobacco producer UST (now owned by Altria).

Also represented on the board are two leading villains of the natural resources sector—petroleum behemoth and climate-change denier ExxonMobil and Peabody Energy, the largest private-sector coal producer in the world. For good measure, the board also includes a representative of Koch Industries, which is not only heavily involved in petrochemicals but is also, through the Koch Brothers, one of the primary backers of groups promoting the same kind of rightwing agenda pushed by ALEC.

Apart from those on the board, ALEC’s membership list is believed to still include corporate bad actors such as ASARCO, Bank of America, BP America, Caterpillar, Chevron, Comcast, Corrections Corporation of America, Dow Chemical, Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold, Monsanto, Northrop Grumman, Shell Oil, T-Mobile and Verizon.

In other words, the effort to cleave off ALEC’s corporate members will increasingly mean taking on companies that are not only notorious but which have a long track record of fending off challenges from labor, environmental and other progressive forces.

It’s true that Wal-Mart, whose vice president for public affairs was serving as secretary on the ALEC board until the company’s departure, is also part of that category. Yet Wal-Mart has been less combative of late, due in large part to the fallout from a foreign bribery scandal and its ongoing effort to give the impression of being an environmental leader. And it is a consumer-oriented company.

So what will it take to knock out these other ALEC loyalists? There’s no easy answer, but it may be necessary for the campaign to treat the relationship of those firms to ALEC in a different way. Until now, the campaign has focused on making ALEC seem like a rogue organization that has adopted positions that diverge from the interests of the target companies. The online petition being circulated by Common Cause states:

Stop risking your company’s reputation. Your association with the American Legislative Exchange Council aligns you and your stockholders with a partisan drive to deny millions of Americans their right to vote, an attack on public schools, and the proliferation of “Stand Your Ground” laws that promote vigilantism.

Your company probably joined ALEC to get help in lobbying for legislation that impacts your business. But ALEC’s agenda these days puts the pursuit of private profit ahead of the public interest. It pulls business leaders like you into a radical ideological crusade involving issues that have nothing to do with your company.

Yet many of the companies listed above continue to support ALEC precisely because it is pursuing a radical ideological crusade that does have something to do with their interests.  The anti-ALEC campaign will have to put more emphasis on the core issues that attract companies to the organization: business tax reduction, deregulation, privatization and other “fundamental principles of free-market enterprise, limited government, and federalism at the state level,” as the ALEC mission statement puts it.

ALEC’s identification with “stand your ground” and voter suppression opened an extraordinary opportunity to put the organization on the defensive, but in the end it is this broader corporate agenda that has to be confronted.

Will Discredited Murdoch Get His U.S. Comeuppance?

Thursday, May 3rd, 2012

The recently released UK parliamentary report on the phone hacking scandal involving News Corporation is destined to become a classic exposition of corporate misconduct.

Its authors appear to have exhausted their thesaurus in coming up with various ways of accusing the company and its top executives, including CEO Rupert Murdoch, of deceit. The company’s long-time claim that the hacking was the work of a single “rogue reporter” is described as “false” (p.7) and “no longer [having] any shred of credibility” (p.67). Various assertions made by the company are said to have been “proven to be untrue” (p.9). Company officials are portrayed as having acted “to perpetuate a falsehood” (p.84), “failing to release to the Committee documents that would have helped to expose the truth” (p.14) and as having “repeatedly stonewalled, obfuscated and misled” (p.68).

The report does not come out and directly call Rupert Murdoch a dirty rotten liar, but it makes the same point in a more biting way when it says of the media mogul’s official testimony: “Rupert Murdoch has demonstrated excellent powers of recall and grasp of detail, when it has suited him” (p.68).

In language rare for a government document to use about a powerful corporation and its top executive, the report declares:

On the basis of the facts and evidence before the Committee, we conclude that, if at all relevant times Rupert Murdoch did not take steps to become fully informed about phone-hacking, he turned a blind eye and exhibited wilful blindness to what was going on in his companies and publications. This culture, we consider, permeated from the top throughout the organisation and speaks volumes about the lack of effective corporate governance at News Corporation and News International. We conclude, therefore, that Rupert Murdoch is not a fit person to exercise the stewardship of a major international company (p.70).

As satisfying as this statement is to read, my primary reaction is: what took so long? Murdoch has been the CEO of News Corp. for more than 30 years, and during that time he has done untold damage to the integrity and quality of the media industry worldwide. The phone hacking scandal was not an aberration in the history of the company or the career of its leader.

Murdoch has been unfit to lead at least since the 1970s, when he began acquiring major publications in the United Kingdom and the United States and infusing them with an insidious combination of sensationalism and Neanderthal politics. In the UK he also declared war on the newspaper unions.

Once he was firmly established as a print baron, Murdoch moved into broadcasting and film through the acquisition of Metromedia’s U.S. TV stations and the Twentieth Century-Fox movie studio. In the process he ran roughshod over federal newspaper/broadcasting cross-ownership regulations and played a major role in the decision by the feds to undermine those rules. Murdoch used his U.S. broadcasting empire not just to make money but to exercise a toxic influence on political discourse, especially through the Fox News Channel launched in 1996.

For Murdoch there has never been a clear dividing line between business and politics. He’s used his properties to promote his political views, and he’s used his political connections—even in a place such as China—to advance his business interests.

This practice has extended into the realm of book publishing, in which Murdoch has played a major role since the acquisition of HarperCollins (previously Harper & Row) in 1987. Murdoch has been accused of using Harper to curry favor with key political figures via lavish book deals. The most notorious of these cases involved none other than Newt Gingrich, who was revealed in 1994 to have received a $4.5 million advance on a two-book deal at a time when he was Speaker of the House and thus in a position to influence legislation to the benefit of News Corp.

It came out that Gingrich met with Murdoch personally shortly before signing the deal was struck. Although Gingrich called the criticism “grotesque and disgusting,” the controversy forced him to forgo the advance. HarperCollins also offered generous advances to other public figures such as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

While the legal troubles of Murdoch and News Corp. continue in the UK, the question is whether there will be consequences on this side of the Atlantic, where the company is headquartered. The bribery aspects of the phone hacking call out for prosecution under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, and there has been speculation about such as investigation since last summer.

For too long, Murdoch has sidestepped U.S. law to build his empire, even going so far as to become an American citizen to get around restrictions on foreign media ownership. There would a delicious irony if what finally brought his comeuppance is misbehavior outside the country.

Employers Stand their Ground

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

These are heady days for the corporate accountability movement. Threats of consumer boycotts prompted half a dozen major companies to drop out of the American Legislative Exchange Council, which in turn forced ALEC to cease its efforts to get states to enact “stand your ground” laws like the one in Florida at the center of an uproar over the shooting of an unarmed teenager.

At the same time, institutional investors humiliated Citigroup by rejecting a board-approved compensation package for its senior executives. Although the “say on pay” resolution is non-binding, it will in all likelihood result in smaller paydays for top officers of an institution that epitomizes financial sector misconduct. This comes on the heels of an announcement by Goldman Sachs that it would change its board structure in response to pressure from the capital strategies arm of the public employee union AFSCME.

Environmentalists have succeeded in stalling and perhaps killing the disastrous Keystone XL pipeline . The past few months have also seen a surge in protest over working conditions at the Chinese plants that produce the wildly popular Apple iPad tablets. Apple’s manufacturing contractor Foxconn was forced to boost pay for factory workers, while Apple itself faced demonstrations at many of its normally idolized retail stores. The Apple campaign and others are being propelled by new online services such as Sum of Us and Change.org that mobilize online pressure for a variety of anti-corporate initiatives.

Missing from all this positive momentum is a significant victory for the U.S. labor movement. While major corporations have bowed to pressure from consumers and shareholders, they are standing their ground against unions.

Rather than making concessions, large private-sector employers are looking to further roll back labor’s power. Companies such as American Airlines and Hostess Brands (maker of Twinkies and Wonder Bread) have filed for Chapter 11 and are using the bankruptcy courts to decimate their collective bargaining agreements and gut pension plans.

Verizon continues to stonewall in negotiations with members of the Communications Workers of America, who struck the company for two weeks last summer in the face of unprecedented concessionary demands from management but then went back to work without a new contract. CWA is also facing difficult negotiations with AT&T, even though the union went out on a limb to support the company’s ultimately unsuccessful bid to take over T-Mobile.

There have been a few relatively bright spots for labor. For example, after being locked out for three months, Steelworkers union members at Cooper Tire and Rubber managed to negotiate a new contract that excluded the company’s demand for a five-tier wage structure with no guaranteed pay increases.

Yet organized labor has not been able to take the offensive in a significant way, and employers continue to feel emboldened. This comes through loud and clear in the results of the latest Employers Bargaining Objectives survey conducted by Bloomberg BNA (summarized in the April 11 edition of Labor Relations Week).

“Employers are fairly brimming with confidence as they head into 2012 talks,” Bloomberg BNA writes. “Nine out of 10 of the employers surveyed are either fairly confident or highly confident of obtaining the goals they have set for their labor agreements.”

Those goals, of course, do not include hikes in pay and improvements in working conditions. In fact, only 11 percent of respondents said they expected to have to negotiate significant wage increases, while 27 percent said they planned to bargain for no improvements at all in wage rates. Many employers expect to shift more health care costs to workers, and few expect to agree to stronger job security provisions.

Employers are prepared to play hardball in seeking their objectives. For example, one-quarter of manufacturing-sector respondents told Bloomberg BNA they would be likely to resort to a lockout of workers if they did not get their way in negotiations. Corporations have little fear of strikes, which are all but extinct, and if workers do dare to walk out, employers are confident of prevailing—or at least maintaining the kind of impasse that exists at Verizon.

Such arrogance is not surprising at a time when unemployment levels remain high and private-sector unionization rates are abysmally low. The question is what it will take to shatter employer intransigence.

One piece of the solution is greater cooperation between unions and the rest of the broader corporate accountability movement, and that’s exactly what seems to be emerging from the 99% Spring offensive.

Strong private sector unions in the United States are an essential check on the power of large corporations and one of the most effective vehicles for raising living standards. Corporate accountability will mean much more when big business is running away not only from ALEC but also from union-busting.

Another Supreme Court Boost for Corporate Unaccountability?

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

Global corporations often think they are above the law, but for more than a decade some of the most egregious human rights and environmental violators have had to answer for their overseas actions in U.S. courtrooms. It now appears that the conservatives on the Supreme Court want to put an end to this key tool of corporate accountability.

The controversy surrounds a once-obscure 1789 law known as the Alien Tort Statute or the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA). It allows foreign citizens to bring civil actions in U.S. courts involving violations of international law or a treaty signed by the United States. The long dormant law was revived in the 1980s by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) as a vehicle for pursuing individual human rights violators and later came to be used against corporations as well.

One of the latter cases, involving Royal Dutch Petroleum, the parent of Shell Oil, made its way to the Supreme Court, where during recent oral arguments justices such as Alito and Kennedy expressed disdain for ATCA. Disposing of any remnant of American exceptionalism when it comes to human rights enforcement, Justice Alito insisted that allegations of Royal Dutch complicity in torture in Nigeria have “no connection” to the United States. “What business does a case like that have in the courts of the United States,” he complained.

Following the oral arguments, the Supreme Court seemed to signal that it wants to address (and quite possibly strike down) ATCA cases against individuals as well as corporations. It asked for additional briefs to be filed by June and will hear new arguments during the court’s next term. This move puts off the day of reckoning for ATCA for some months, but if the tenor of the recent oral arguments reflected the thinking of the justices, ATCA will not be with us for much longer.

To get a sense of what we may be losing, it is worth taking a look at how ATCA has been used to address corporate transgressions. Apart from the Royal Dutch matter still before the Supreme Court, here are some of the main cases that have been brought:

Doe v. Unocal. This pioneering corporate ATCA case was filed in 1996 by a group of Burmese citizens against U.S.-based Unocal (later taken over by Chevron), which was accused of complicity in abuses such as forced relocation, forced labor, murder, rape and torture by the Burmese military during the construction of a gas pipeline project sponsored by the company and the military. The case, brought with the help of CCR and EarthRights International (ERI), was settled out of court in 2005.

Wiwa v. Royal Dutch Petroleum/Shell Oil. In 1996 CCR and ERI helped bring an earlier case against Royal Dutch and Shell involving human rights abuses in Nigeria, especially the execution of Ogoni activist Ken Saro-Wiwa in 1995. On the eve of a trial in 2009, the companies agreed to a $15.5 million settlement.

Bowoto v. Chevron. In 1999 a group of Nigerians of the Niger Delta region, where Chevron is engaged in oil production, brought suit against the company, which they accused of complicity in torture, summary execution and other human rights abuses carried out by the Nigerian police and military against people protesting environmental violations on the part of the company. In 2008 a federal jury ruled in favor of the company, but the plaintiffs, who have been aided by CCR and ERI, filed an appeal which is pending.

Sarei v. Rio Tinto. In 2000 a group of residents of the island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea (PNG) brought an ATCA suit against this mining giant, alleging that it was complicit in crimes against humanity committed by the PNG army during a secessionist conflict. The plaintiffs also accused the company of environmental crimes. The case has gone through a series of twists and turns over the past decade and is still pending after the U.S. Court of Appeals reversed a lower court’s dismissal of the case last October.

John Doe v. Exxon Mobil.  In 2001 a group of villagers from the Indonesian province of Aceh, working with the International Labor Rights Fund (ILRF), brought an ATCA case accusing the oil giant of complicity in human rights abuses committed by Indonesian security forces. For more than a decade the case has made its way through various courts and remains unresolved.

SINALTRAINAL et al. v Coca-Cola et al. In 2001, several individuals and the Colombian trade union SINALTRAINAL, with the help of ILRF and U.S. unions, brought suit against Coca-Cola and two of its Latin American bottlers in connection with the torture and murder of trade unionists by paramilitary groups. A federal judge removed Coca-Cola from the case, which was later dismissed in its entirety (though a related campaign continues).

It’s clear from this brief review that ATCA cases have faced high hurdles and protracted legal maneuvering on the part of the defendants, and only rarely have they achieved success in the form of a settlement. In 2004 the Supreme Court, amid intense pressure from the corporate world and the Bush Administration, declined to ban ATCA cases, though it insisted that only a narrow category of cases could be brought under the statute.

A majority of the current Court seems less interested in such compromises and more inclined to sweep away ATCA in a Citizens United-type affirmation of corporate unaccountability that will be celebrated by repressive governments and their foreign investors around the world.

Note: A list of pending ATCA cases can be found on the website of International Rights Advocates. An excellent resource on ATCA cases and other issues involving the conduct of global corporations can be found on the website of the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre.

Making Corporations Disappear

Thursday, November 10th, 2011

From the 11-year prison term and $92 million fine imposed on convicted insider trader Raj Rajaratnam to the apparent misappropriation of hundreds of millions of dollars in client funds at failed brokerage firm MF Global to the admission by Japan’s Olympus Corp. that it has been cooking the books for years, the news is full of reminders about the criminality that pervades the corporate world.

At the same time, the ongoing Occupy movement has been bringing renewed attention to the disastrous consequences of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling that enshrined corporate personhood. One of the more popular protest messages seen at Occupy encampments is: “I will believe that corporations are people when Texas executes one of them.”

As Russell Mokhiber of Corporate Crime Reporter points out, the idea is not so far-fetched. For the past two decades there has been a small but persistent campaign to promote the idea that the state-granted charters of rogue corporations could be challenged, thereby putting them out of business. The movement was pioneered by Richard Grossman, who co-authored a well-circulated 1993 pamphlet entitled Taking Care of Business, which outlined legal and historical justifications for charter revocations.

Grossman’s evangelism helped create the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, which helps communities fight corporate intrusions at the local level, and the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy, which publishes materials that “contest the authority of corporations to govern.”

These groups and others were challenging corporate personhood even before Citizens United, and groups inspired by these ideas launched campaigns to challenge the charters of outlaw corporations such as Union Carbide (largely because of its role in the Bhopal disaster) and Unocal (because of its role in oil spills, frequent workplace safety and health violations, and human rights violations in its relations with repressive governments).

The idea began to catch on. In 1998, Eliot Spitzer, then a candidate for New York Attorney General, said he would not hesitate to push for the dissolution of corporations found guilty of criminal offenses. In the early 2000s, groups in California pushed for a corporate three strikes law to deal with recidivist business offenders such as Tenet Healthcare.

The charter revocation concept waned for a while but had a resurgence last year in response to the outrageous behavior of BP in the Gulf oil spill and that of Massey Energy in creating the conditions that led to the Upper Big Branch mine disaster in West Virginia. Massey ended up being taken over by another company, but BP remains in business despite the fact that its misconduct in the Gulf occurred while it was on probation for earlier federal offenses relating to a 2005 refinery explosion in Texas and 2006 oil spills in Alaska.

The Occupy movement sets the stage for a new assault on corporate recidivists. There is no shortage of offenders. For instance, the New York Times just showed that numerous investment banks have committed repeated violations of Securities and Exchange Commission anti-fraud rules. Mokhiber suggests that potential candidates for the corporate death penalty include health insurers, nuclear power plant operators, giant banks and firms engaged in hydraulic fracking.

The real challenge is to figure out what it would mean to execute a giant corporation. There are few precedents for doing so. Nearly all the major companies that have gone out of existence have done so as the result of takeovers by other large firms. In a limited number of cases such as Enron and Lehman Brothers, companies were forced to liquidate, but by the time this happened the firms were effectively worthless.

Unanswered is the question of what would happen if a large and healthy corporation had to cease operations because of a charter revocation. Selling off the company piece by piece in fire sales to other large corporations would have the undesirable effect of increasing concentration in the industry.

While it may be morally satisfying to say that such a firm should simply vanish, that would be unfair to the workers and other stakeholders who may have played no role in the criminal behavior that brought on the revocation. Besides, this too could result in higher industry concentration as other firms capture the disappearing company’s market share.

What’s needed is a set of protocols for a just transition of a de-chartered company to a new corporate form based on principles such as trust busting (splitting up business behemoths into smaller entities), worker ownership, environmental responsibility and community oversight.

A distinction would have to be made between disappearing companies in those industries that serve a legitimate need and those which need to be phased out for reasons aside from the behavior of individual firms (coal, tobacco, for-profit health insurance, etc.).

Figuring out how to dismantle large companies will be a huge and complicated task, but it is an essential undertaking if we are ever to escape from the era of corporate domination.

Tax Dodging Inc.

Thursday, November 3rd, 2011

Given that big business provides the bulk of the money pouring into the political system, it is no surprise that members of Congress and presidential contenders alike tend to espouse the idea that large corporations are overtaxed. This myth gets repeated despite all the evidence that blue chip companies find endless ways to pay much less than the statutory rate.

It is now more difficult for the tax avoidance deniers to spread their snake oil. Citizens for Tax Justice and the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy have just come out with a compelling study called Corporate Taxpayers & Corporate Tax Dodgers that examines the fine print of the financial statements of the country’s largest corporations and identifies scores of firms that fail to pay their fair share of the cost of government.

Looking at a universe of 280 companies, CTJ and ITEP find that over the past three years, 40 percent of them paid less than half of the statutory rate of 35 percent. Most of those paid what the study calls “ultra-low” rates of less than 10 percent. Thirty of the firms actually had negative tax rates, meaning that Uncle Sam was paying them for doing business. In dollar terms, the biggest recipients of tax subsidies over the three-year period were Wells Fargo ($18 billion), AT&T ($14.5 billion), Verizon Communications ($12.3 billion) and General Electric ($8.4 billion). The freeloaders had rates as low as minus 57.6 percent. You should read the study for yourself to get all the juicy details.

CTJ and ITEP have been putting out these bombshell reports periodically over the past three decades. The ones from the early 1980s drove the Reagan Administration crazy and paved the way for the Tax Reform Act of 1986, which reversed many of the corporate giveaways of the initial Reagan years.

It is tempting to think that this new report will subvert the current corporate tax relief movement, but that is a tall order. Part of the reason is that corporations, having bought much of the policymaking apparatus, have become much more brazen in their self-serving behavior.

Let’s take the case of Nabors Industries, the world’s largest oil and gas land drilling contractor.  Nabors was not eligible to be considered for the CTJ/ITEP study because it is headquartered in Bermuda. The company is not really Bermudan. Its principal offices are in Houston, but it re-incorporated itself in the island nation a decade ago for one simple reason: to escape paying U.S. federal income taxes (Bermuda imposes no such levies on corporations). It was part of a wave of companies that in the early 2000s underwent what were euphemistically called corporate inversions.

Critics called the moves “unpatriotic” or even “akin to treason,” but Nabors went ahead with its plan. There was an effort later in Congress to collect retroactive taxes from Nabors and a handful of other firms that had carried out inversions, but the move was blocked by New York Rep. Charles Rangel after Nabors CEO Eugene Isenberg made a $1 million contribution to a help build the Charles B. Rangel School of Public Service at the City College of New York. Rangel was subsequently charged with an ethics violation in connection with the contribution.

Nabors and Isenberg have been in the news again recently in connection with another scandal. Nabors announced that it was paying Isenberg, now 81 years old, $100 million to give up his post as chief executive. Although the payment is linked to a severance agreement, Isenberg is remaining with the company as chairman of the board. The situation was remarkable enough to merit a front-page story in the Wall Street Journal, which is normally blasé about bloated executive pay.

Isenberg’s bonanza is the culmination of a series of outsized pay packages. In 2005, for instance, he received total compensation of more than $200 million. In 2008 his bonus alone was more than $58 million. In a non-binding vote earlier this year, a majority of Nabors shareholders disapproved the company’s executive pay policies.

It used to be that executive compensation was high in relation to worker pay rates put still a relatively small amount compared to revenue and profits in large companies.  That has been changing. The payouts to Isenberg have a significant impact on the firm’s bottom line. The $100 million being collected by Isenberg to give up his CEO job more than wipes out the $74 million in profits Nabors posted for the most recent quarter. Nabors, by the way, has disclosed that it has been investigated by the Justice Department for making foreign bribes.

As the Institute for Policy Studies showed in a report a couple of months ago, it is not unusual for major companies to pay their chief executives more than they send to the Treasury in taxes. Add to that the CTJ/ITEP findings and the behavior of firms like Nabors, and it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that in many large corporations the dominant motivation is to enrich their principals, even if that means sidestepping obligations to shareholders, government and workers. In other words, big business is increasingly acting as little more than a vehicle for expanding the wealth of the 1%.