Archive for the ‘Corporate “Social Responsibility”’ Category

A Great Place for Wage Theft

Thursday, January 23rd, 2014

Restaurant giant Darden, which is being pressured by hedge funds to sell off both its Red Lobster and Olive Garden chains, got some good news recently when it appeared once again on Fortune magazine’s list of the 100 companies that are supposedly the best places to work.

That designation, for a company that has been the subject of numerous allegations of labor abuse, is even more puzzling than the idea that Darden would be better off without the outlets through which it grew into an $8 billion industry powerhouse.

For more than a decade, Darden has been accused by groups such as ROC United of using various means to shortchange its workers on their paychecks, a practice known as wage theft. In 2005 the company agreed to pay $9.5 million to more than 20,000 current and former servers at Red Lobster and Olive Garden outlets in California to settle a lawsuit claiming that the restaurants violated state labor regulations by preventing workers from taking required breaks and by requiring them to purchase and maintain their uniforms.

Three years later, Darden disclosed that it had paid $4 million to settle two class-action lawsuits alleging that it had violated California law in requiring servers and bartenders to make up for cash shortages at the end of their shifts. Also in 2008, Darden reported that it had paid $700,000 to settle another California suit claiming several types of wage and hour violations, including a failure to provide itemized wage statements and timely pay when an employee was terminated.

In 2011, following a U.S. Labor Department investigation that found workers were not being paid for all their hours, Darden agreed to pay $25,000 in back wages to 140 current and former servers at an Olive Garden in Mesquite, Texas.  The company was also fined $30,800. That same year, the company consented to pay $27,000 in back pay and was fined $23,980 in connection with a similar federal investigation at a Red Lobster in Lubbock, Texas.

In the wake of the two Texas cases, suits were brought against Darden in several other states. For example, in early 2012 ROC United filed a class action case on behalf of Darden workers at another of the company’s chain, Capital Grille. For technical reasons, the action was later divided into separate actions in five jurisdictions (all are still pending).

An even larger legal challenge to the company came in September 2012, when a class action suit was filed in federal court in Miami on behalf of all current and former employees (back to 2009) at five of Darden’s chains. The 54 named plaintiffs in the case stated that the company did not pay them for the period between the beginning of their shifts and the time customers began to arrive, thereby forcing them to do prep work off the clock. Darden was also accused of failing to pay time-and-a-half for those working more than 40 hours per week and for improperly applying the lower subminimum wage for tipped workers when they were engaged in non-serving tasks.

The complaint in the case — which described the company as having “a steadfast, single minded focus on minimizing its labor costs” by arranging to have “as many tasks as possible performed by as few employees as possible” — also alleged that two of the named plaintiffs had suffered retaliation from management because of their participation in the case. Some 13,000 current and former Darden servers have joined the suit, which is pending.

The ROC United wage theft actions against Capital Grille also allege that the chain has engaged in a pattern of racial discrimination, including the denial of better-paid server and bartender jobs to non-white workers.

In 2009 the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced that Darden’s Bahama Breeze chain would pay $1.26 million to settle allegations that managers at its restaurant in Beachwood, Ohio had subjected 37 black workers to repeated overt racial harassment. In addition to the monetary relief, the chain signed a three-year consent decree requiring it to improve its anti-discrimination practices throughout the country.

In September 2013 the EEOC filed suit against Red Lobster, alleging that female workers at its restaurant in Salisbury, Maryland have been subjected to “pervasive sexual harassment.” According to the agency, the harassment was committed by a manager, whose superior was said to have failed to take prompt action on the matter despite complaints from at least one of the affected workers.

Darden has also sought to lower its labor costs by becoming more active in the public policy arena. Until 2007 Darden spent less than $250,000 a year on federal lobbying. Beginning in 2008 that amount jumped to well over $1 million annually.

The company is a prominent participant in the National Restaurant Association (NRA), which promotes policies that enhance the bottom line of chains such as Darden. It has opposed living wage initiatives, worked to keep the minimum wage for tipped workers at $2.13 an hour (where it has remained since 1991) and resisted efforts by labor groups to enact mandatory paid sick days, often by promoting state laws that pre-empt local ordinances on the issue. Darden is reported to have helped write the pre-emption bill in Florida.

All of this somehow escaped the attention of Fortune and the organization, the Great Place to Work Institute, which compiles the list. Or perhaps the Institute doesn’t worry about real working conditions. A 2011 investigative report raised serious questions about its methodology, suggesting it is mostly interested in selling consulting services to the companies it is rating. As a recent Alternet piece notes, the lack of an arm’s-length relationship with those companies is also seen in the fact that Darden CEO Clarence Otis has been a speaker at Institute events.

The designation as a “great place to work” is featured by Darden on its website, but the dubious honor cannot change the company’s dismal labor track record.

Note: This piece draws from my new Corporate Rap Sheet on Darden, which can be found here.

Apologies and Apple

Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

bad-appleIn 2010 Texas Rep. Joe Barton took the bizarre step of apologizing to BP for the Obama Administration’s effort to get the oil giant to compensate those affected by its massive spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Barton faced a firestorm of criticism and had to retract his statement.

It will be interesting to see if Sen. Rand Paul has to do the same with his outrageous statement the other day arguing that the Senate should apologize to Apple for the report of its investigations subcommittee documenting brazen tax dodging by the company. “I would say what we really need to do is to apologize to Apple, compliment them for the job creation they are doing, and get about doing our job,” Paul declared at a hearing to discuss the report.

I don’t know how Apple CEO Tim Cook restrained himself from jumping up and giving Paul a big wet kiss on the lips. Cook instead offered testimony that was part p.r. spiel about the wonderfulness of Apple and part outright dishonesty about its tax practices. Among his claims: “Apple does not use tax gimmicks.”

The problem is that the investigations subcommittee’s 40-page report described an array of loopholes and tricks by which Apple has shielded tens of billions of dollars from federal taxation.  At the center of the scheme is the artificial designation of vast amounts of cash as being held offshore to keep it outside the reach of the IRS. That hoard, which now totals more than $100 billion, is actually, the New York Times reports, held in bank accounts in New York in the name of Apple subsidiaries based in Ireland.

For tax purposes, Apple claims that its key Irish entity has no legal residency (nor a physical presence or employees), meaning that it is not effectively taxed anywhere. A recent analysis by Citizens for Tax Justice concluded that Apple has paid “almost no income taxes to any country” on its offshore stash. This undermines the arguments made by Apple and other corporations for a new repatriation tax holiday or a shift to a territorial tax system.

“Apple has a very strong moral compass, and we believe in really good corporate citizenship,” Cook recently told the Washington Post. That claim was already preposterous, given past revelations about abysmal working conditions at the company’s supplier plants in China.

Tax dodging, unfortunately, is not widely regarded as being on a par with sweatshops as an indicator of corporate social irresponsibility. Apple, for instance, feels compelled to publish material asserting that it and its suppliers support labor and human rights and that they operate in an environmentally sound manner. There is no such statement on its website about compliance with tax laws.

Apple, like just about every other large corporation, not only manipulates the federal tax code but does the same at the state and local level, both through accounting schemes and by negotiating economic development subsidy deals, which frequently include corporate income tax credits, business property tax abatements and the like.

Last year, for example, Apple took an $89 million subsidy package to build a data center in Reno, Nevada that was expected to create only 35 permanent Apple employees. Three years earlier, Apple got a state subsidy package in North Carolina worth over $46 million (plus more at the local level) for a similar facility that was projected to produce only 50 permanent jobs.

Apple and other companies justify the taking of subsidies because it is legal and because it is usually linked to job creation, though in the case of Apple the number of jobs, at the data centers at least, is minute compared to the lost tax revenue.

What demands by rich companies for subsidies they don’t need really shows is that tax minimization is not, as corporate apologists would have us believe, just a response to the complexity of the federal tax code. It is a compulsion to increase net income, regardless of the consequences for the public. That is part of the definition of corporate irresponsibility.

Companies like Apple will continue to get away with fiscal murder until tax dodging and excessive subsidy taking are as stigmatized as the use of sweatshop labor and toxic dumping. At that point, even politicians of Rand Paul’s ilk might have to think twice about challenging the right of Congress to investigate unscrupulous tax accounting practices.

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.

Corporate Capture in Rio and at Home

Thursday, June 21st, 2012

The 50,000-person United Nations conference on sustainable development in Rio de Janeiro is bound to be followed by recriminations about what the nations of the world failed to accomplish. Perhaps the real story is what the planet’s giant corporations did accomplish in Rio — to advance their own interests.

Rio +20 is following what is now a familiar pattern in which governments drag their feet while major companies try to give the impression that they are the vanguard of environmental reform. The extent to which the United Nations — whose Centre on Transnational Corporations was once somewhat critical of big business — has embraced this dynamic can be seen on the website Business.UN.org, whose tagline is “Partnering for a Better World.” Corporations can post their sustainability goals on the site under the misleading category of Commitments. Whether the various goals are timid or ambitious, they are all, of course, voluntary in nature and thus unenforceable by the UN or any other body.

More is at work here than simple image-burnishing by many of the planet’s biggest polluters. According to a report issued for Rio +20 by Friends of the Earth International, large corporations and business associations have in effect hijacked the UN’s policymaking process: “There is increased business influence over the positions of national governments in multilateral negotiations; business representatives dominate certain UN discussion spaces and some UN bodies; business groups are given a privileged advisory role.”

“An even greater cause of concern,” the FOEI report goes on to say, “is the emergence of an ideology among some UN agencies and staff that what is good for business is good for society. This is reflected in a shift away from policies and measures designed to address the role of business in creating many of the problems that we face, towards policies that aim to define these problems in terms dictated by the corporate sector, meeting their needs without tackling the underlying causes of the multiple crises.”

All of this constitutes what FOEI calls “corporate capture” of the UN, a phrase that echoes the term “regulatory capture” used to describe what happens when the interests of corporations come to dominate the proceedings of government oversight agencies. FOEI has issued a statement with other NGOs decrying the excessive corporate influence over UN deliberations that has been endorsed by more than 400 groups from around the world.

It’s heartening that so many groups are willing to speak out, but it’s discouraging to realize that the same criticisms have been made for more than a decade, to little avail. At the time of the 2002 UN earth summit in Johannesburg, CorpWatch issued a report called Greenwash +10 that was already warning about the risks of the UN’s increasing commitment to corporate partnerships. It noted that one of those partnerships, Global Compact, claimed to be promoting business support for UN sustainability goals yet included among its members companies such as mining giant Rio Tinto with atrocious environmental records.

Rio Tinto is one of the companies singled out in the new FOEI report for continuing to engage in the same kind of hypocrisy. The mining company is also one of the main targets (along with BP and Dow Chemical) of the Greenwash Gold campaign, which  accuses the companies of covering up environmental destruction “while pretending to be a good corporate citizen by sponsoring the Olympic games” being held this summer in London.

Undue corporate influence over climate policy is also the theme of a recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists.  While acknowledging that some U.S. companies have taken “consistent and laudable” actions in support of science-based climate reforms, it finds that others have worked aggressively to undermine such progress.

Most interesting is its finding that some large corporations have taken contradictory positions depending on the circumstances. For example, some companies are found to make legitimate statements of concern over climate change on their websites and in their filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission while misrepresenting the state of climate science in their comments submitted to Environmental Protection Agency proceedings. Companies that fall into the contradictory category — such as Alcoa, ConocoPhillips and General Electric — are said to be standing in the way of meaningful change.

Whatever positions corporations take, there will always be tension between their interests and the common good. The fact that those two goals may occasionally coincide does not justify the outsized role that corporations now have in policymaking at both the national and international levels. Progress on climate change and many other fronts will be a lot easier when we are free from corporate capture in all its forms.

The Collapse of Wal-Mart’s Social Responsibility Charade

Thursday, June 7th, 2012

For the past eight years, Wal-Mart has pursued an image campaign apparently inspired by the Marx Brothers line: “Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?”

Despite the preponderance of evidence of its unenlightened practices, the company has tried to give the impression that it is really a model corporate citizen. Recent events suggest that the giant retailer’s social responsibility charade is now crumbling.

Through all of its scandals and controversies over the years, Wal-Mart could at least count on the support of its institutional shareholders, which for a long time turned a blind eye to the company’s transgressions and focused on its growth. Now even that is changing. The recently released results of voting at the company’s annual meeting indicate unprecedented discontent with its leadership. Not counting the large bloc of shares controlled by descendants of founder Sam Walton, more than 30 percent of the votes were cast against CEO Mike Duke, board chair Rob Walton and former CEO and board member Lee Scott. In the past, Wal-Mart board members typically had approval rates close to 100 percent.

The high degree of no-confidence this time around is largely attributable to the fallout from an 8,000-word exposé by New York Times alleging that high-level executives at the company quashed an internal investigation of foreign bribery. Before the annual meeting, the California State Teachers’ Retirement System filed a lawsuit against current and former Wal-Mart executives and board members for breach of their fiduciary duties in connection with the bribery scandal.

That scandal also appears to have played a significant role in Wal-Mart’s decision to cave in to calls to suspend its membership in the American Legislative Exchange Council, which is under siege for its role in promoting “stand your ground” laws such as the one in Florida linked to the shooting of Trayvon Martin. In the past, Wal-Mart, long a stalwart member of ALEC, would have ignored pressure of the kind being exerted by the anti-ALEC campaign.

By all rights, the disintegration of Wal-Mart’s responsibility image should have come from its retrograde labor and employment practices, which were the main reason for the public relations effort but which didn’t substantially change during the campaign. The company has never strayed from its uncompromising opposition to unions (except for toothless ones in China). The Organization United for Respect at Walmart is not a conventional union-organizing effort, yet the company recently fired several activists in the group in an apparent act of intimidation.

In its 1.4 million-employee U.S. retail operations, Wal-Mart has maintained a low-road approach of meager wages, inadequate benefits and overuse of part-timers. Workers at its more than 100 distribution centers had enjoyed somewhat better conditions, but it appears that is no longer the case. A new report from the National Employment Law Project finds that the company is increasingly using logistics subcontractors and temp agencies that engage in rampant wage-and-hour abuses and other labor-law violations.

In the latest in a long line of its own fair labor standards cases, Wal-Mart was recently forced by the U.S. Labor Department to pay $5.3 million in back pay, penalties and damages for violating overtime rules. Although the U.S. Supreme Court came to Wal-Mart’s rescue last year by blocking a massive class-action sex discrimination case, several non-class actions have been brought in recent months making the same allegations on behalf of thousands of women.

One area in which Wal-Mart believes it has attained a measure of legitimacy is environmental policy. It has succeeded in winning over some green groups, which cannot resist the temptation of working with such a mammoth company to change industry standards.

Yet the funny thing about Wal-Mart’s green initiatives is that most of them involve changes that the retailer is requiring from its suppliers, who are expected to bear the costs of altering their products and their packaging. This is consistent with Wal-Mart’s longstanding practice of forcing suppliers to cut their wholesale prices to the bone. When Wal-Mart does take steps on its own, such as in reducing energy usage in its facilities, those reforms are ones that reduce its operating costs and thus add to its bottom line.

Even if you believe it is okay for Wal-Mart to boost its profits while pressing suppliers to be more environmentally responsible, it’s important to remember that many of those suppliers are in countries such as China where oversight is difficult. A recent investigative report in Mother Jones found that Wal-Mart’s monitoring of Chinese plants left a lot to be desired and that this is causing frustration among some of the environmentalists who have been working with the company.

A report by Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance finds that Wal-Mart’s domestic green initiatives, such as using more renewable energy sources, are also faltering, while the company ignores the detrimental environmental impacts of its land use practices. All this is compounded, Mitchell notes, by Wal-Mart’s extensive political contributions to candidates who are global warming deniers or otherwise have poor voting records on the environment.

The demise of  Wal-Mart’s phony social responsibility initiative poses a fascinating question: Can the company return to its old critics-be-damned stance, or will it finally have to make some genuine reforms in the way it does business?

Facebook’s Dubious Social Mission

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

The Blues Brothers claimed they were on a mission from God. Mark Zuckerberg, whose $17 billion fortune is about to become even larger thanks to the Facebook initial public offering, insists that his company is on a “social mission.”

In a letter accompanying the firm’s first substantive disclosure filing, Zuckerberg writes that “Facebook was not originally created to be a company.” Its mission, he says, is “to make the world more open and connected,” and he insists: “we don’t build services to make money; we make money to build better services.”

It’s difficult to take this high-mindedness seriously in connection with a company that may soon have a market value of $100 billion built on persuading millions of people to hand over vast amounts of personal information about themselves that Facebook— which has a total workforce of only 3,200—then sells to corporate marketers.  Data protection and privacy are generally considered good things; for Facebook, the possibility of more stringent laws in those areas is presented as a risk factor in its SEC filing.

In his social mission statement, Zuckerberg also writes: “We believe building tools to help people share can bring a more honest and transparent dialogue around government that could lead to more direct empowerment of people, more accountability for officials and better solutions to some of the biggest problems of our time.”

It’s interesting that Zuckerberg never refers to the need for more accountability on the part of Facebook or corporations in general. His letter gives the appearance of promoting corporate social responsibility but never actually does so. His attitude seems to be that Facebook’s only real obligation is to provide supposedly fabulous services, and that by itself will change the world.

It should thus come as no surprise that when it comes to dealing with governments and communities, Facebook is just as self-serving as any corporation not pretending to be on a social mission. This is demonstrated most clearly at its data centers.

These facilities, also known as server farms, are large collections of computers that power online networks. They use vast amounts of power and thus are located in rural areas with cheap electricity. Being highly automated, they create few jobs—yet Internet companies take advantage of the desperation of local officials for investment of any kind to obtain substantial economic development subsidies.

Facebook announced in January 2010 that it would build its first data center in central Oregon, choosing a location in the economically depressed town of Prineville that was part of an enterprise zone, thus making it eligible for property tax breaks for up to 15 years. The company later began expressing public concerns about how its intangible property would be taxed. In recent months it has been pressuring state legislators to restrict the ability of the state revenue department to assess data centers as utilities.

The company has even tried to intimidate the state by warning that, unless it got its way on taxes, the future of the Prineville facility—which employs about 50 people—would be in question. The revenue department now seems to have backed down. It is amazing to see how this purportedly enlightened company would throw its weight around to avoid pay a tax bill that under the worst case scenario would have cost it only $390,000 a year. (That figure, by the way, is about 1 percent of the $30.9 million that Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg received in total compensation last year, according to the company’s new SEC filing.)

Meanwhile, Facebook has negotiated a subsidy deal for its second data center, located in North Carolina’s Rutherford County. The facility, which was expected to create about 40 jobs, was made eligible for up to $11 million in county financial assistance, on top of state tax breaks for data centers enacted in 2010. The one good thing that can be said about these subsidies is that they are a lot less costly than the ridiculous sum of $260 million that North Carolina gave to Google in 2007 for its server farm project in the state.

In 2010 Facebook also got a $1.4 million grant from Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s Texas Enterprise Fund to help pay for the creation of a sales office in Austin.

Paying its fair share of state and local taxes without taking subsidies it doesn’t need and without bullying public officials would be a good way for Facebook to start acting like it really is on a mission other than enriching Mark Zuckerberg and a small number of other members of the 1%.

Corporate Environmental Opportunism

Thursday, September 8th, 2011

“There is too much regulation and this is acting as a depressant on the economy.”

This statement could have been made by any one of the current Republican presidential contenders, but the words come from a press conference held by Ronald Reagan shortly after taking office in 1981.

Reagan used the event to announce the launch of his effort to weaken federal rules in areas such as environmental protection and occupational safety and health—moves that were supposed to encourage job creation.

Little has changed over the past three decades in the thinking of conservatives about the purportedly harmful effects of government oversight of industry and the magic of deregulation. After all, they have gotten a lot of political mileage out of Reagan’s aphorism that “government is the problem.”

What’s more interesting is the changing posture of business, the constituency on whose behalf the assault on regulation is said to be mounted. Three decades ago, there was no question that large corporations were ardent foes of agencies such as EPA and OSHA, and they promoted the idea that aggressive regulation destroyed jobs and curtailed economic growth. They also acted on those beliefs.

Richard Kazis and Richard Grossman opened their 1982 book Fear at Work: Job Blackmail, Labor and the Environment by recounting the announcement in 1980 by Anaconda Copper (then owned by the oil company Atlantic Richfield) that it was shutting down its smelter and refinery operations in Montana because they could not be retrofitted to satisfy environmental standards. The move eliminated 1,500 jobs.

Critics pointed out that Anaconda could have received a multiyear extension of its Clean Air Act compliance deadlines but had chosen not to apply for one, suggesting that it had other reasons for the shutdown. Nonetheless, Anaconda’s action served to generate hostility not toward the company but toward the EPA and environmental activists. Other large companies also stoked anti-regulation sentiments.

With the exception of a few diehards such as Koch Industries, today’s major corporations do not espouse Neanderthal views on environmental regulation. Almost all of them purport to have enlightened stances on issues such as air and water quality, climate change and recycling as part of overall company policies on corporate sustainability and responsibility (CSR).

BP, which purchased Atlantic Richfield in 2000, took a hit to its image during the Gulf of Mexico oil spill last year, but before that it had acknowledged that global warming was a problem and claimed to be going “beyond petroleum” by investing (modestly) in renewable energy sources. BP’s competitor Chevron also became a proponent of environmental protection and launched an ad campaign with the tagline “Will You Join Us” that was apparently meant to convey the idea that the oil giant is in the vanguard of efforts to save the earth.

Such positions are not limited to the petroleum sector. Retailing behemoth Wal-Mart has taken high-profile steps to reduce its carbon footprint and has pressured its suppliers to do the same. Toyota, General Motors and other auto giants have put increasing emphasis on hybrids and electric cars. Goldman Sachs, a CSR pioneer in the investment banking world, was the first Wall Street firm to adopt a comprehensive environmental policy (after being pressured by groups such as Rainforest Action Network). Ceres, a non-profit that focuses on sustainability issues, has several dozen Fortune 500 companies in its coalition.

Given all this high-minded corporate thinking on the environment, how can Republican candidates continue to portray regulatory rollbacks as the pro-business position? Or even, in cases such as Newt Gingrich and Michele Bachman, get away with calling for the abolition of the EPA?

A key reason is that big business, despite its claim to have embraced sustainability, is not willing to apply that principle in the public policy arena. CEOs are not speaking out against the EPA bashers or denying them PAC contributions.

This gets to the heart of what is wrong with CSR. It is a system of voluntary and selective actions that companies adopt, largely for public relations purposes—not mandated and enforceable directives imposed by democratic institutions. CSR cannot take the place of the EPA.

The absence of progressive corporate voices on environmental issues makes it easier for the likes of Gingrich and Bachman to make outlandish statements on regulatory matters. To make matters worse, President Obama implicitly endorsed the wrongheaded notion that environmental regulations stand in the way of job creation in his recent decision to prevent the EPA from implementing a long-planned stricter air quality standard for ground-level ozone emissions.

What more could Corporate America ask for? It gets to portray itself as environmentally friendly while reaping the advantages of regulatory rollbacks being promoted across the political spectrum. That’s opportunism on a grand scale.

Unsuitable Saviors

Thursday, July 28th, 2011

If you go by the agenda of Koch Industries and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, big business is obsessed with cutting taxes, weakening regulation and denying the existence of global warming.

The truth is more complicated. For more than a decade, most large U.S. corporations—including the likes of Wal-Mart, Chevron and Goldman Sachs—have been ardent proponents of the principles of corporate social responsibility, or CSR. Like many of their European and Japanese counterparts, they profess to be leaders in a global movement to address the climate crisis, raise the living standards of the planet’s poorest and otherwise make the world a better place.

As London-based CSR evangelist Wayne Visser argues in his new book The Age of Responsibility, that movement is in crisis. The hypocrisy of espousing enlightened views while letting trade associations such as the Chamber lobby for Neanderthal ones is the least of it.

Despite the enormous resources and influence of the companies pushing it, CSR has done little to alleviate the larger problems it has taken on. As Visser puts it: ”At the macro level, almost every indicator of our social, environmental and ethical health is in decline.” He continues:

At worst, CSR in its most primitive form may be a smokescreen covering up systematically irresponsible behavior. At best, even the most evolved CSR practices might just be a band-aid applied to a gaping wound that is hemorrhaging the lifeblood of the economy, society and the planet.

As a long-time critic of CSR, my response to this diagnosis is: amen. However, I quickly part ways with Visser when it comes to a prescription for what to do next.

Visser spends much of his 366-page text arguing, essentially, that the antidote to failed CSR is more CSR. He never puts it quite that simply. Visser is a management consultant, after all, and he has to dress up his analysis with endless bullet points and matrices (many parts of the book read like powerpoint presentations).

At the center of all the jargon is the thesis that the world needs a new version of corporate social responsibility (actually, he prefers the phrase corporate sustainability and responsibility) which he dubs CSR 2.0.

This new approach is said to be based on five principles:  Creativity, Scalability, Responsiveness, Glocality and Circularity.

Visser devotes a chapter to each of these, and the result is exasperating. His exegesis is full of platitudes and buzz words: “thinking outside the box,” “setting audacious goals,” “cross-sector partnerships,” “think global, act local,” “cradle to cradle” (rather than just cradle-to-grave) assessments of the environmental impact of products, etc.

What’s also bewildering is that Visser points to numerous companies that, he maintains, have already been putting into practice his principles that are supposedly the wave of the future. Among them are many of the usual CSR suspects: Google, Wal-Mart, The Body Shop, Nike, Patagonia and the mining giants BHP-Billiton and Anglo American.

What, then, is really new about CSR 2.0? The only thing that strikes me as novel is Visser’s call for making CSR “systemic” or “holistic”—yet this is where the entire concept of CSR, it seems to me, breaks down.

It is understandable to want to attack problems in a more comprehensive way, but it is not clear, to me at least, that large corporations are the appropriate primary vehicle for addressing the climate crisis, air and water pollution, global poverty, diseases such as AIDS/HIV, child labor and sweatshops.

For one thing, transnational corporations have played a significant role in creating or at least exacerbating some of these crises—and they may have a vested interest in perpetuating them. Even where this is not the case, why would we want to give a leadership role to institutions that are inherently undemocratic and exist primarily to enrich a small portion of the population? Corporations should certainly clean up their own act, but there is no reason to put them in charge of everything.

Much of CSR can be seen as an attempt to replace rigorous government regulation with limited voluntary initiatives that companies also use for public relations purposes. The answer is not a more ambitious form of CSR, as Visser suggests. We need less emphasis on corporate responsibility and more on corporate accountability—on corporations being held to account by government and organizations representing all of society. That’s a 2.0 that would truly make a difference.

Targeting Target

Thursday, May 26th, 2011

Logo of the UFCW's Target campaign

The news of a union organizing drive at a group of Target Corporation stores in the New York City area raises the tantalizing possibility that the master of cheap chic may finally be knocked off its pedestal.

For years, Target has used its stylish image to obscure the fact that many of its employment and other practices are not significantly different from those of its scandal-ridden rival, Wal-Mart. It’s even managed to get itself included on a list of the “world’s most ethical corporations.”

Target’s stores, like those of Wal-Mart’s U.S. operations, are entirely non-union, and the company intends to keep them that way. The New York Times account of the organizing drive has Jim Rowader, Target’s vice president for labor relations, spouting the usual corporate rhetoric about how a union (the UFCW) would undermine the supposed trust that the company has built up with its workers. BNA’s Labor Relations Week (subscription-only) reports that Target is subjecting workers to captive meetings “conducted by store management in an attempt to dissuade workers from seeking union representation.”

Since no representation elections have been held yet, it is unclear whether Target will follow the lead of Wal-Mart in eliminating the jobs of those who dare to vote in favor of a union.

Target does not have a reputation quite as abhorrent as that of Wal-Mart when it comes to other employment practices, but neither is its record untarnished.  It has been accused of subjecting its largely part-time workforce to the same abuses—inadequate wages, restrictions on health coverage, overtime violations, etc.—seen among other big-box retailers. Though not as often as Wal-Mart, Target has shown up on lists prepared by state governments of the employers with the most workers or their dependents receiving taxpayer-funded healthcare benefits. Target has fought against living wage campaigns, most notably in Chicago in 2006, when it threatened to cancel plans for two new stores in the city unless Mayor Richard Daley vetoed a wage ordinance (which he did).

Target has also faced accusations relating to the treatment of minority applicants and employees. In 2007 the company paid a total of more than $1.2 million to settle cases brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission involving alleged racial discrimination in hiring in Wisconsin and a racially hostile environment in Pennsylvania.

There have been controversies involving the treatment of workers by Target suppliers and contractors, as well.  In 2002 Target was one of a group of retailers that together paid $20 million to settle class-action lawsuits charging them with permitting sweatshop conditions at factories run by their suppliers in Saipan, part of the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific. A 2006 report by SOMO, a Dutch research center on transnational corporations, documented other instances in which Target garment suppliers were reported to be abusing workers and the retailer did little in response.

Target has a history of hiring janitorial contractors for its U.S. stores that tend to engage in rampant wage theft. In 2004 one such contractor, Global Building Services, paid $1.9 million to settle an overtime-violation case brought by the federal government on behalf of immigrant workers.  In 2009 another Target cleaning contractor, Prestige Maintenance USA, settled an overtime lawsuit for up to $3.8 million.

Labor practices are not the only area in which Target’s accountability record falls short. Earlier this year, the company had to pay $22.5 million to settle civil charges that its operations throughout California had violated laws relating to the dumping of hazardous wastes. Target has had a good record on gay rights, though last year the company found itself at the center of a controversy after it was revealed to have contributed to a business PAC which in turn contributed to a gubernatorial candidate in Minnesota who campaigned against gay marriage (among other reactionary positions).  Target later apologized.

And then there’s the matter of subsidies. Like Wal-Mart, Target has extracted lucrative tax breaks and other forms of financial assistance from many of the communities where it has built stores or distribution centers. One of its more audacious efforts was a proposal for a $1.7 billion mixed-use project in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Park, for which Target wanted more than $20 million in property tax abatements and a public contribution of $60 million for infrastructure costs. Despite seeking all this taxpayer assistance, Target demanded a waiver from the city’s living-wage policy for many contract and part-time workers who would be employed at the site.

Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Target, aside from its style, is that it is much smaller than Wal-Mart. Its total revenues are only about one-sixth of the worldwide sales (and less than one-quarter of U.S. sales) of the Bentonville behemoth. Target’s workforce of 355,000, all in the United States, is dwarfed by Wal-Mart’s domestic headcount of 1.4 million and another 700,000 abroad. Target thus has a much smaller impact on overall labor practices and the global supply chain.

What impact it does have is not salubrious. Now that it is facing some union pressure, let’s hope Target breaks from Wal-Mart and decides that it is makes sense to treat its workers with as much respect as its customers.

NOTE: Speaking of subsidies, the Subsidy Tracker database I created for Good Jobs First has just been expanded and now has more than 65,000 entries covering 154 subsidy programs in 37 states.

Can Corporate Tax Dodgers Be Socially Responsible?

Thursday, April 7th, 2011

In much the same way that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker reinvigorated organized labor, General Electric is reigniting the movement for tax justice. The revelation in a March 25 New York Times front-page story that GE arranged things so that it owes nothing to the Internal Revenue Service on its $5 billion in 2010 U.S. operating profits—in fact, it expects to claim a refund of $3.2 billion—has sparked a firestorm of protest.

GE, of course, is not the only high-profile corporate tax dodger. The new US Uncut campaign is also targeting Bank of America, Verizon and FedEx. Other offenders include Google and Amazon.

What tends to get overlooked in the furor over big business tax avoidance is that the companies involved are usually ones that profess to adhere to the principles of corporate social responsibility.

Take General Electric. Like many other large firms, GE tries hard to present itself as a good corporate “citizen.” It has a website dedicated to the subject, and its board of directors has a Public Responsibilities Committee. GE also publishes an annual Citizenship Report.

In the 44 pages of that report, taxes are mentioned only in passing—and then mainly to cite the total amount GE pays to governments worldwide. It uses a figure of $23 billion, but that is over the course of a decade, whereas the other numbers in the report tend to be annual ones. Nor does GE compare the number to the more than $160 billion it earned in profits during the ten years.

GE goes on at length about its commitment to “Community Building,” stating that “Governments and national institutions are vital to progress. The quality of public institutions is therefore crucial.” Yet when it comes to explaining what it does to support a strong public sector, the company changes the subject. It highlights its charitable contributions, its investments in “human capital” and its involvement in environmental and trade policy issues.

GE, like many other companies, is able to get away with this because issues such as fair taxation and tax compliance are largely absent from the discourse of corporate social responsibility (CSR). Given the lack of a standardized definition of what is and is not socially responsible, corporations can pick and choose. We thus end up with cases such as Wal-Mart, which maintains its Neanderthal labor practices while touting environmental initiatives as evidence of its high level of ethicality.

Selective business ethics is especially problematic when it comes to taxes. Business apologists say that corporations have a duty to their shareholders to minimize tax payments and that there is nothing wrong with using all legal means to do so. But how far does that go? The Times pointed out that GE’s tax department has a staff of 975 dedicated to finding every last trick, and the company spends millions each year lobbying for even more loopholes.

What about Wal-Mart’s use of a device known as a captive real estate investment trust to avoid billions of dollars in state income taxes by essentially paying rent to itself and then deducting the cost? And how about those companies that create paper subsidiaries in offshore tax havens? A 2010 study published in the journal Corporate Governance found that even companies that move their legal headquarters to such havens go on claiming to be socially responsible.

Another obstacle is that the governments that are victimized by business tax dodging often fail to take strong measures, thus reinforcing the idea that it is not a significant offense. In the United States, criminal tax prosecutions of large corporations are few and far between. In a rare instance last December, Deutsche Bank paid $553 million in fines and admitted to criminal wrongdoing for helping U.S. customers make use of fraudulent tax shelters. Deutsche Bank, of course, professes a strong commitment to corporate social responsibility.

One place where CSR-spouting corporate tax dodgers are starting to be challenged is Britain. Over the past few years, human rights groups such as Christian Aid have criticized tax avoidance and evasion by transnational corporate operations in developing countries, arguing that these practices keep those nations stuck in a poverty trap. More recently, the UK Uncut campaign (which inspired US Uncut) has targeted tax dodging in Britain itself by corporations such as the European cellphone giant Vodafone. Cyberactivists hacked into Vodafone’s CSR website to post messages about the firm’s dubious tax practices.

Actions such as these help cut through the corporate obfuscation and make it clear that the failure of a large company to comply with a shared responsibility such as taxes is socially irresponsible.