Archive for the ‘Corporate Campaigns’ Category

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.

Fighting Unions in Bizarro World

Thursday, June 9th, 2011

UAW President Bob King (left)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wal-Mart Plays the Victim

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

In the mid-1990s business groups such as the American Trucking Association – then led by Thomas Donohue, currently head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce – launched a crusade to ban union corporate campaigns. The effort fizzled out, but now Wal-Mart may be trying something similar to thwart site fights pursued by community groups opposed to the opening of the giant retailer’s stores and distribution centers.

The company is pouncing on a story published in the Wall Street Journal in June reporting that rival grocery chains such as Safeway and SuperValu helped to pay for the services of a firm called Saint Consulting Group, which has worked with community groups around the country in campaigns against Wal-Mart projects. The article also reported that Saint’s fees are sometimes paid by the United Food and Commercial Workers. The UFCW does not hide the fact that it works with community groups opposed to the virulently anti-union Wal-Mart, whose expansion threatens the jobs of UFCW members at unionized competitors. The UFCW confirmed to the Journal that it has funded Saint and insisted it had every right to do so. The newspaper said that the rival chains declined to comment.

In a just-published follow-up article, the Journal reports that Wal-Mart is asking courts to compel its opponents to disclose who is paying their legal bills in various environmental lawsuits challenging the company’s expansion. This could be the first step in an effort to get courts and perhaps friendly legislatures to put restrictions on site fights and their funding. While Wal-Mart claims to be most upset about the involvement of its competitors, the company may try to use this issue to weaken community groups and the UFCW, its long-time nemesis.

It is the height of hypocrisy for Wal-Mart to complain about collusion among its adversaries. The beast from Bentonville has never hesitated to use every trick at its disposal – including the funding of front groups – to advance its expansion efforts. Over the summer it succeeded in getting permission to build a second store in Chicago by using tactics such as creating fake community groups and hiring low-income people to pose as demonstrators supposedly eager to get a Wal-Mart job. The company also pretended to have seriously negotiated with unions on wage rates for the store.

Several years ago, Wal-Mart sought to defuse criticism of its detrimental impact on local businesses by launching an “Opportunity Zone” program that amounted to little more than bribing small firms to back its agenda. In 2006 it came to light that two blogs that appeared to be written by independent supporters of the company were actually created by Wal-Mart’s public relations firm, Edelman. That was in addition to reports that the company was cultivating real bloggers, some of whom were repeating company talking points verbatim.

The amount of money Wal-Mart’s competitors have contributed to site fights probably does not compare to what Wal-Mart has spent itself. Apart from the direct costs of those site battles, the company cultivates political support through direct means such as campaign contributions and is believed to make wide use of indirect means such as giving consulting contracts to relatives of public officials.

State and local governments end up paying for the company’s campaigning through the economic development subsidies (estimated at more than $1.2 billion) they give to Wal-Mart and the forms of tax avoidance (estimated at billions more) that the company arranges for itself.

Wal-Mart may feel that the likes of Safeway and Supervalu are violating some unspoken rule by supporting site fights, but it has broken every rule in the book itself in pursuit of endless expansion. But rather than defending those rivals, the most important thing is to be sure Wal-Mart does not exploit this issue to put shackles on community groups and unions, which are often the only forces working against the company’s quest to take over everything.

Villainous Visionaries

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

It is tempting to refute the new book on business ethics by Andy Wales, Matthew Gorman, and Dunstan Hope with two letters; BP. The oil giant’s record of negligence in connection with the Gulf of Mexico disaster, its refinery accidents and its pipeline leaks in Alaska flies in the face of the thesis of Big Business, Big Responsibilities: that large corporations are in the vanguard of efforts to address the planet’s most pressing environmental and social problems.

The text of the book appears to have been completed before the blow-out of BP’s Macondo well this spring, but it is likely that the incident would not have merited mention if the timing had been different. Wales, Gorman and Hope seem to live in a world in which corporations act nobly and business crimes such as bribery, price-fixing, toxic waste dumping, mistreatment of workers and disregard for safety norms are either a thing of the past or are rare enough to ignore.

The authors – two of whom work for large corporations while the third (Hope) is on the staff of Business for Social Responsibility – would have us believe that many major companies have in a short period of time evolved from villains to visionaries.

To their credit, Wales, Gorman and Hope do not claim that this transformation happened spontaneously. They fully acknowledge the role of environmental and social justice campaigns in highlighting harmful and unfair business practices. Yet they fail to address corporate resistance to these campaigns, making it seem as if top executives promptly renounced pollution and exploitation as soon as an objection was raised.

Wales, Gorman and Hope admit that the initial boardroom motivation was to protect brands damaged by aggressive campaigners, but they insist that many large companies have gone beyond that defensive posture and are now engaged in a “proactive search for opportunities to improve social well-being and achieve corporate financial success at the same time.”

Their outlook is representative of the new corporate utopianism – the notion that the profit motive can be made to align perfectly with the public good, thus making global companies the perfect vehicle for reshaping the world.

It is easy to see why Wales, Gorman and Hope, who have built their careers on promoting corporate social responsibility, would embrace this view, and its appeal among the companies they advise is obvious.

But it is not clear why those of us with no vested interested in corporate canonization should go along. Even if we admit that some companies are doing some socially beneficial things, what took them so long? Are we expected to forget their decades of rapacious behavior?

It is also unclear how far should we trust companies that began to act responsibly only after being pressured to do so by outside forces, which according to Wales, Gorman and Hope include not just corporate campaigns but also growing consumer preference for ethical and sustainable goods and services. The only internal impulse that seems to be at work in socially responsible companies is the desire to make a buck from these new market opportunities.

So let me get this straight: responding to external pressures, giant corporations are doing the right thing, which turns out to be highly profitable – and we are supposed to believe this is some kind of great moral awakening?

Before passing judgment on the intentions of companies professing a commitment to social responsibility, perhaps we should take a step back and ask how real is the purported transformation. And this brings us back to BP, which is repeatedly praised by Wales, Gorman and Hope for its forward-thinking stance on issues such as climate change.

Given what we now know about BP’s reckless actions, as opposed to its high-minded principles, it is likely that its commitment to social responsibility is a smokescreen. Wales, Gorman and Hope don’t consider the possibility that many of the laudatory policies adopted by BP and other corporate leviathans are nothing more than greenwashing.

Big Business, Big Responsibilities could be dismissed as a work of corporate propaganda, but what makes it more insidious is the appeal the authors make to non-governmental organizations. The last page of the book calls on NGOs to be less suspicious of corporations and to accept them as full partners in environmental and social campaigns. I read this as an effort to bring about a unilateral ceasefire by watchdogs groups, which would lose their independence and start functioning as appendages of corporate public relations departments.

While a few NGOs have already moved in this direction, it would be foolhardy for serious campaigners to abandon their adversarial posture toward corporations. Without such pressure, big business would inevitably return to all its old tricks.

Getting Corporations to Do the Right Thing

Thursday, October 29th, 2009

pinklidI admit it—the Dirt Diggers Digest is guilty of focusing on the bad news about corporate misdeeds. So in this post I will write about something positive: activist groups that are succeeding in changing corporate behavior for the better.

The occasion for this shift in emphasis is the recent announcement of the winners of the BENNY awards, which are given out by the Business Ethics Network. BEN is an association of organizations and individuals involved in corporate campaigns that seek to pressure companies to end injurious practices relating to the environment, public health and the workplace. (Full disclosure: I have served on BEN’s advisory committee.)

Since 2005 BEN has been giving awards celebrating outstanding victories. During the past few years it has also honored groups that are making progress toward such victories and given individual achievement awards to veteran campaigners.

Each time attend the awards ceremony and hear the descriptions of the campaigns, I find my skeptical shell melting away in a wave of optimism about the prospects for undoing corporate harm. This year was no different.

There was a tie for 1st place in the main BENNY award between the Campaign for Fair Food and Think Before You Pink: “Yoplait—Put A Lid On It!”

The Campaign—led by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) and supported by the Presbyterian Church (USA) and others in the Alliance for Fair Food—has made great strides in improving the working conditions of immigrant farmworkers in southern Florida. The campaign has won a string of victories by going around the growers who are the direct employers of the workers and pressuring their major customers (fast food giants, supermarket chains, and major food service companies) to pay more for the produce with the understanding that the difference will go toward higher wages.

Think Before You Pink is a campaign led by Breast Cancer Action that has taken a critical approach toward the growing corporate practice of putting pink ribbons on their products to raise awareness of breast cancer. The campaign started out examining whether those companies are contributing a significant portion of the purchase price toward legitimate cancer research. More recently, it has challenged pink-ribbon companies that make products that have been linked to breast cancer (the campaign calls it “pinkwashing”).

One of its recent targets was Eli Lilly, which sells drugs meant to reduce the risk of breast cancer while at the same time distributing rGBH, an artificial growth hormone used by dairies that is a suspected carcinogen. Earlier this year, the Think Before You Pink campaign got General Mills to stop using rBGH in its Yoplait yogurt, which has extensively used pink-ribbon marketing.

BEN gave its first-place Path to Victory award to the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign, which is seeking to reduce use of the climate-destroying black fuel through efforts such as organizing students at campuses which depend on coal-generated electricity.  The campaign, which is targeting some schools smack in the middle of coal country, has released a tongue-in-cheek online video with the tagline “Coal is Too Dirty Even for College.”

The Individual Achievement Award went to Sister Pat Daly, a veteran shareholder activist who heads the Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment, an alliance of Roman Catholic groups in the New York City metropolitan area. She is best known as one of the founders of Campaign ExxonMobil, which pioneered the effort to get the giant oil company to take a less irresponsible position on climate change.

At the BEN awards ceremony, Sister Pat also described facing down former General Electric CEO Jack Welch at a company board meeting. For years, she and other activists had been pressing GE to accept responsibility for cleaning up the PCB contamination it had caused in New York’s Hudson River. And for years the company resisted. Welch’s successor Jeff Immelt eventually relented, and in May 2009 a clean-up effort financed by GE finally began. Sister Pat’s role in that victory certainly deserved to be honored.

Whether over the course of months or decades, the kinds of campaigns celebrated by the BENNY Awards show that corporations can be made to do the right thing.

Piercing the Corporate Veil of Secrecy

Tuesday, June 17th, 2008

Congratulations to Wikileaks, Wal-Mart Watch and a handful of other web resources for being chosen by Portfolio magazine as the “top anti-corporate sites.” Specifically, the magazine is featuring sites that have done the most to distribute confidential—and often embarrassing—corporate documents or otherwise publicize material that companies want kept quiet. “From anonymous whistle-blowers who post secret documents online to fan sites that spill trade secrets,” Portfolio writer Kim Zetter says, “websites and their owners can be a major thorn in the side of corporations that find comfort behind a veil of secrecy.”

Wikileaks is focused on piercing that veil. The site was at the center of controversy a few months back when Swiss bank Julius Baer tried to get it taken offline after it posted documents that purportedly showed how the bank’s Cayman Islands branch helps wealthy clients hide assets and launder money. Much of the web community rallied to the defense of Wikileaks, and the censorship move was defeated.

Wal-Mart Watch, of course, is one of two national campaigns aimed at reforming the giant retailer. Aside from producing its own critiques of the retailer (including one to which I contributed), the group has used its site to publicize internal company documents leaked to it. Among these was a memo in which the company discussed controlling health care costs by methods such as making physical activity part of every job, apparently so that those in poorer shape would not apply.

The other sites singled out by Portfolio are:

* Mini-Microsoft, a anonymous blog written by a Microsoft employee who skewers management and highlights waste and inefficiency at the software behemoth.

* Brenda Priddy and Company, a automobile outfit that is not necessarily critical of carmakers but which manages to take clandestine photographs of their prototype vehicles and sell them to other websites and magazines for distribution well before the companies are ready to go public.

* Farmers Insurance Group Sucks, a site produced by a disgruntled customer who now publicizes lawsuits against the company, complaints to state insurance agencies, and unflattering insider testimonials.

* HomeOwners for Better Buildings, a site that exposes the shortcomings of the residential construction business, especially KB Homes. It is filled with homebuyer horror stories and has an “Implode-O-Meter” that tracks companies in the industry experiencing bankruptcy or other forms of distress.

* AppleInsider and MacRumor, which make it their business to report on new Apple products and features being developed by the secretive company.

Zetter has only scratched the surface, and she seems to realize it. She says to her readers: “If you have suggestions for other pesky sites that are a reliable source for inside information about a company or industry, please let us know. We’ll write about the best ones in a follow-up article.” So go ahead and let Zetter know about the wider world of the corporate-critical web.

Their Information-Gathering and Ours

Monday, April 14th, 2008

The activist world is abuzz over two new articles about corporate spying on environmental and labor groups.

James Ridgeway has published an exposé in Mother Jones on a private security company called Beckett Brown International (later S2i). According to documents obtained by Ridgeway, the firm, organized and managed by former Secret Service officers, spied on Greenpeace and other environmental groups in the late 1990s. Its activities are said to have included “pilfering documents from trash bins, attempting to plant undercover operatives within groups, casing offices, collecting phone records of activists, and penetrating confidential meetings.” Because the papers seen by Ridgeway are not complete, it cannot be said exactly which groups were spied on for whom. The firm’s clients are known to have included corporations such as Allied Waste, Halliburton, Monsanto and Wal-Mart.

The other article was written by Amy Bennett Williams for the Fort Myers (Florida) News-Press. It reports on an attempted infiltration of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers farmworker advocacy group by the owner of a private surveillance company. The Coalition suspects that the company may have been hired by Burger King, which is the current target of a campaign to raise pay for tomato pickers. The article notes that a person using an e-mail address traced to Burger King’s corporate headquarters made disparaging online comments about the Coalition.

Reports such as these are certainly a matter of concern, but it is important to distinguish between unlawful corporate espionage and legitimate information-gathering of the type that campaigners themselves do against companies all the time.

For example, in speaking about his article on Democracy Now this morning, Ridgeway mentioned that among the Beckett Brown documents he obtained was a background report on David Fenton, who runs the largest public-interest p.r. firm in the country. Ridgeway mentioned that the file included license plate numbers and property tax records.

As a corporate researcher (and licensed private investigator) for unions, environmental organizations and other activist groups, I find nothing scandalous about the presence of that kind of information, which is part of the public record (though there are often restrictions on who can access license plate numbers). The same goes for divorce, bankruptcy and other court records; criminal records and driving violations; tax liens; state corporate filings; campaign contributions; and voting records (indicating whether someone voted, not who they voted for). I’m also not scandalized by dumpster diving, assuming that it was done in a jurisdiction where it is not illegal (laws vary).

Let’s not be disingenuous. Campaigners use all legal means at our disposal to find possibly incriminating information about corporations and their executives. We should accept that they are doing the same about us.

The difference, of course, is that corporations and their agents sometimes cross the line. As the Ridgeway and Williams articles suggest, companies may use operatives who engage in burglary, infiltration, pretexting (misrepresenting oneself to obtain financial and telephone records) and other illegal or improper tactics. By all means, let’s condemn those practices, while being careful not to preclude those information-gathering techniques we need for our nobler purposes.