Archive for the ‘Corporate Spying’ Category

Neither Social Darwinism Nor Paternalism

Wednesday, April 4th, 2012

President Obama’s critique of the Republican budget plan as “thinly veiled social Darwinism” is a refreshingly blunt statement about the retrograde features of contemporary conservative thinking.

The efforts of House Budget Chair Paul Ryan and his colleagues to accelerate the upward redistribution of income and the unraveling of the social safety net deserve all the scorn that Obama served up.

While invoking a phrase that has a grand history in the critique of laissez-faire ideology, Obama failed to mention how social Darwinism was originally embraced not just by philosophers such as Herbert Spencer but also by leading industrialists such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller (a fact noted by Richard Hofstadter in his seminal work on the subject, Social Darwinism in American Thought).

Rather than pointing out how social Darwinist ideas can still be found in corporate boardrooms (especially those of Koch Industries) as well as in House hearing rooms, the purportedly socialist Obama went out of his way to sing the praises of business: “I believe deeply that the free market is the greatest force for economic progress in human history.”

Obama also used his speech to extol Henry Ford, specifically for the auto magnate’s policy of paying his workers enough so that they could afford to buy the cars they were assembling. Higher wages are a good thing, but it is misleading to cite Ford without putting his practices in some context.

Henry Ford gained fame as the man who instituted the Five Dollar Day for his workers in the 1910s. The facts were somewhat more complicated: not all workers at Ford Motor qualified for that amount, which in any event was not the base pay. A large part of the $5 consisted of a so-called “profit-sharing” bonus that had to be earned — by working at a high level of intensity on the job, and by living in a style that Ford considered appropriate off the job.

To enforce the lifestyle regulations, Ford created a Sociological Department with inspectors who visited the homes of workers and interviewed family members and neighbors. The company wanted to be sure that workers were not spending their share of Ford profits in a frivolous or irresponsible manner.

Ford’s practices were also designed to discourage unionization. When workers nonetheless tried to organize, Ford’s paternalism quickly dissolved. In 1932 a protest march to the company’s River Rouge plant in Dearborn, Michigan was met with tear-gas and machine-gun fire, which killed four persons. Dearborn police officers were supplemented by members of the Service Department, Ford’s own security force. Headed by Harry Bennett, the Service Department became notorious for its surveillance of workers both on and off the job. In a 1937 confrontation known as the Battle of the Overpass (photo), union organizers were attacked by Bennett’s security force and freelance thugs when they attempted to distribute leaflets outside the Rouge plant. Ford was the last of Detroit’s Big Three to give in to unionization.

It is telling that the word “unions” was not uttered a single time during Obama’s speech. Instead, Obama seems to want us to believe that the alternative to deregulation and trickle-down economics is a return to some kind of government and big business paternalism.

The first problem is that big business, despite giving frequent lip service to corporate social responsibility, has almost completely abandoned paternalism in favor of the human resources principles of Wal-Mart. As for government paternalism, Obama himself felt compelled to say in his speech that “I have never been somebody who believes that government can or should try to solve every problem.”

Even if the prospects for paternalism were more promising, it would not be the most effective way of responding to neo-social Darwinism. As the story of Henry Ford illustrates, paternalism is simply another form of social control by the powerful, and when necessary it is quickly abandoned in favor of repression and austerity. Collective action of the type that was put aside after Obama took office and recently revived by the Occupy Movement is the only real way forward.

It’s Not Paranoia if Dow Chemical Really is Breaking Into Your Office

Friday, December 3rd, 2010

Wall Street has been in a state of high alert over reports that the next big document dump by the transparency extremists at WikiLeaks will concern a major U.S. bank. The stock price of Bank of America recently plunged for a while on speculation that it was the target.

Yet the bigger espionage story of recent days is one in which a major U.S. corporation is alleged to be the culprit rather than the victim. Greenpeace has just filed a racketeering complaint in DC federal court alleging that Dow Chemical and a smaller chemical company – a North American subsidiary of South Africa’s Sasol Ltd. – conspired with a leading public relations firm, Ketchum Inc., and a smaller pr outfit called Dezenhall Resources Ltd., to spy on Greenpeace.

This is said to have occurred from 1998 to 2000, a period when Greenpeace was campaigning against the dioxin risks created by manufacturing facilities such as those run by Dow and Sasol North America, which at the time was known as CONDEA Vista and was owned by the German energy giant RWE.

What’s the big deal, you might ask. Don’t environmental groups monitor big corporations all the time? In fact, the web page on which Greenpeace presents its materials about the lawsuit contains a prominent link to its archive of its corporate investigations. Shouldn’t companies be able to keep tabs on their opponents?

The difference between what Greenpeace does and what Dow et al. allegedly did is the small matter of adherence to the law. The defendants are accused not of using legitimate information-gathering techniques but rather of engaging in illegal activities such as trespass, invasion of privacy, conversion (a form of theft) of confidential documents – even misappropriation of Greenpeace’s “trade secrets.”

The complaint alleges these firms hired private security consultant Beckett Brown International (BBI; later known as S2I Corporation) to do their dirty work. The now defunct BBI, at the time run and staffed by former employees of the Secret Service and federal intelligence agencies, is said to have hired subcontractors who broke all kinds of laws to get at internal information about the  operations, strategic plans and finances of Greenpeace and apparently a number of other groups such as Friends of the Earth and the Center for Food Safety. Prominent environmental activists allied with Greenpeace, such as the legendary Lois Gibbs, are also said to have been spied on.

One of the most troubling allegations in the complaint is that BBI employed off-duty DC police officers to gain access to private premises (including locked areas in which Greenpeace kept its trash and recycling materials before they were collected) by showing their badges as if they were on official business. Greenpeace says it has recovered more than 1,000 pages of its internal documents – a fraction, it says, of what was taken. Greenpeace alleges that most of the papers came not from BBI incursions against its dumpsters but rather from direct break-ins at the group’s DC offices. Electronic surveillance is also charged.

BBI apparently did not have much of a reputation to protect, but the case is presumably a significant setback for Dezenhall Resources, which calls itself “the nation’s leading high-stakes communications consultancy.” Its principal Eric Dezenhall, a White House staffer during the Reagan Administration, has written several books (fiction and non-fiction) and frequently publishes commentaries in the Huffington Post and the Daily Beast. He helped Forbes compile its list of the year’s biggest corporate blunders.

Having worked for clients such as Michael Jackson and Enron executive Jeffrey Skilling, Dezenhall fancies himself a pr gunslinger; others have called him the “pit bull” of public relations. Now that he is on the hot seat himself, Dezenhall seems less inclined to take the offensive. When the Washington Post contacted him about the Greenpeace suit, his response was “no comment.”

That was also the response of spokespeople for Dow Chemical, Sasol and Ketchum. Dow, of course, has been no stranger to controversy from its role as a producer of napalm and Agent Orange during the Vietnam War to its refusal to adequately compensate the victims of the Bhopal tragedy after taking over Union Carbide. Just think of all the juicy secrets that would come out if WikiLeaks ever got hold of its archives. But for now the Greenpeace suit is shedding light on an egregious case of corporate misconduct.

A “Poster Child for Corporate Malfeasance”

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

One of the cardinal criticisms of large corporations is that they put profits before people. That tendency has been on full display in the recent behavior of transnational mining giant Rio Tinto, which has shown little regard for the well-being not only of its unionized workers but also of a group of executives who found themselves on trial for their lives in China.

The China story began last July, when four company executives — including Stern Hu, a Chinese-born Australian citizen — were arrested and initially charged with bribery and stealing state secrets, the latter offense carrying a potential death penalty. The charges, which most Western observers saw as trumped up, were made during a time of increasing tension between Rio and the Chinese government, one of the company’s largest customers, especially for iron ore.

Earlier in the year, debt-ridden Rio had announced plans to sell an 18 percent stake in itself to Chinalco, the state-backed Chinese aluminum company, for about $20 billion. Faced with strong shareholder and political opposition, Rio abandoned the deal in June 2009. The arrests may have been retaliation by the Chinese for being denied easier access to Australia’s natural riches.

Although Rio claimed to be standing by its employees, the case did not curb the company’s appetite for doing business with the deep-pocketed Chinese. Rio continued to negotiate with Beijing on large-scale iron ore sales. It seems never to have occurred to the company to terminate those talks until its people were freed. In fact, only weeks after the arrests, Rio’s chief executive Tom Albanese was, as Canada’s Globe and Mail put it on August 21, “trying to repair his company’s troubled relationship with China.”

Before long, Rio was negotiating with Chinalco about participating in a copper and gold mining project in Mongolia. One thing apparently led to another. In March 2010 — after its still-imprisoned employees had been officially indicted and were about to go on trial — Rio announced that it and Chinalco would jointly develop an iron ore project in the West African country of Guinea.

When that trial began a couple of weeks later, the Rio managers admitted guilt, but not to the more serious charge of stealing trade secrets. Instead, they said they had engaged in bribery — but as recipients rather than payers. While the four defendants may have been guilty of some impropriety, it is likely that the admissions were a calculated move to gain a lighter sentence in a proceeding whose outcome was predetermined. And that was the case in large part because their employer decided that its business dealings were more important than demanding justice for its employees.

Rio is no more interested in justice when it comes to its operations outside China. It has been accused of human rights violations in countries such as Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. And it has a track record of exploiting mineworkers in poor countries such as Namibia and South Africa while busting unions in places such as Australia. Recently, Rio showed its anti-union colors again in the United States.

On January 31 its U.S. Borax subsidiary locked out more than 500 workers at its borate mine in Kern County, California. The workers, members of Local 30 of the International Longshore & Warehouse Union had the audacity of voting against company demands for extensive contract concessions. The company wasted no time busing in replacement workers.

In a press release blaming the union for the lockout, U.S. Borax complained that ILWU members earned much more than workers at the company’s main competitor Eti Maden. The release conveniently fails to mention that Eti Maden’s operations are in Turkey.

Also missing from the company’s statement is the fact that the biggest driver of demand for boron – a material used in products ranging from glass wool to LCD screens – is the Chinese market. If U.S. Borax busts the ILWU in a way that keeps down boron prices, then the ultimate beneficiary may be Rio Tinto’s friends in China.

It is no surprise that mining industry critic Danny Kennedy once wrote that Rio Tinto “could be a poster child for corporate malfeasance.”

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.