Archive for the ‘Outsourcing’ Category

Civil Servitude

Saturday, June 7th, 2014

madison protestPublic employees used to be known as civil servants, and the way things are going that label is becoming more and more accurate. The 5 million people employed by state governments and the 14 million employed by local governments are under attack in a variety of ways, and the U.S. Supreme Court may soon provide the crowning blow.

Going after public employees — even firefighters and other first responders — became a popular sport in the wake of the Republican gubernatorial victories of 2010. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his allies in the legislature defied mass protests (photo) and pushed through a law gutting public employee collective bargaining rights. Tennessee and Idaho enacted laws restricting bargaining rights for public schoolteachers. Ohio’s legislature curbed those rights for all state employees, but the move was repealed in a 2011 referendum.

At the same time, fiscal austerity measures led to widespread layoffs even among those public workers who did not lose their union protections. Between 2009 and 2013 state and local governments shed around half a million jobs, which has been a blow not just to those let go but also to the national economy. The private sector recovery has been held back by the ongoing slump in much of the public sector.

There are other pernicious forces at work. A new report by In The Public Interest describes the ways in which the outsourcing of public functions “sets off a downward spiral in which reduced worker wages and benefits can hurt the local economy and overall stability of middle and working class communities.” Using examples involving functions such as nursing, food service, trash collection and prisons, the report brings together data showing how job quality can plummet after the work is contracted out. For example, it notes that private-sector trash collectors earn around 40 percent less than their public sector counterparts.

Wages are not the only way in which privatized jobs are inferior. Slashing retirement benefits is one of the key ways that outsourcing companies achieve “savings.” Those who remain on public payrolls are also finding their pensions under assault. Led to believe that retirement costs for government workers are out of control, governors and legislators in numerous states have been moving to cut benefits, tighten eligibility requirements and push now hires into 401(k)-style defined contribution plans instead of traditional and more secure defined-benefit coverage.

As if all this were not bad enough, public employee unions are facing a legal challenge that could undermine their ability to survive. The Supreme Court is expected to rule this month on a case called Harris v. Quinn, which started out as a narrow dispute over the obligation of home health care workers to pay agency fees to unions that bargain on their behalf.

That case was concocted by the vehemently anti-union National Right to Work Foundation, which by the time the matter was heard by the Supreme Court in January was arguing that decades of settled law on the collective bargaining rights of all state and local employees should be scrapped.

This position was so audacious that even Justice Scalia seemed to have a problem with it. Yet other conservatives on the court as well as the man-in-the-middle Justice Kennedy seemed to be open to the idea. This could set the stage for a reprise of what happened in Citizens United: the transformation of a narrow case into a broad ruling with disastrous consequences.

The consequences being sought by the “right to work” crowd go far beyond the enfeeblement of public sector unions. They also want to dismantle the political influence of public sector unions, which are a key source of support for the Democratic Party and for progressive public policy. As Jay Riestenberg and Mary Bottari point out in PR Watch, the National Right to Work Committee has long had deep connections with rightwing players ranging from the John Birch Society to the Koch Brothers.

The ties with the latter are an indication that the “right to work” forces are not hurting for money. While enjoying their own solid funding, they are seeking to undermine the money flows which unions depend on to pursue their mission. In an era in which, as the Supreme Court has declared, money is free speech, the Right is doing everything in its power to silence workers and their representatives.

UnitedHealth Group Haunts Obamacare

Thursday, October 31st, 2013

unitedhealth_100121_mnKathleen Sebelius’s “hold me accountable” line at the latest House hearing on the botched rollout of Healthcare.gov was a deft political move. It flummoxed Republican interrogators who expected the HHS Secretary to pass the buck.

Yet the line was dismaying in that it continued the Obama Administration’s practice of deflecting most criticism away from the contractors that were responsible for building the portal, at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.

Not only have the contractors been shielded, but one of those at the center of the debacle was just chosen to head up the rescue of the project. In the world of government outsourcing, failure is no impediment to getting rehired with even more responsibility.

The anointed company is QSSI, previously an obscure player in the world of healthcare IT. What makes the kid-glove treatment of this firm all the more galling is that QSSI is owned by UnitedHealth Group, also the parent of UnitedHealthcare, one of the two behemoths (the other is WellPoint) of the private health insurance industry.

In other words, one of the large corporations that the Affordable Care Act is propping up (despite their abysmal record) is now profiting from cleaning up the mess that one of its unit caused in trying to create a system designed to help people enroll in plans sold by its own parent company and its competitors.

If this were not bizarre enough, it is worth recalling that this is not the first time a UnitedHealth subsidiary has been involved in a scandal involving a healthcare database. In 2008 the company’s Ingenix unit was the target of allegations that its tool for determining how much patients should be reimbursed for out-of-network medical expenses was seriously flawed. Then-New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo brought suit against UnitedHealth, calling the widely used Ingenix database part of a scheme to “to deceive and defraud consumers.”

In 2009 UnitedHealth settled with Cuomo by agreeing to spend $50 million to build a new database and then agreed to pay $350 million to settle class action lawsuits that had brought over the issue. Ingenix subsequently changed its name to Optuminsight, which by the way is now the parent of QSSI.

Another UnitedHealth subsidiary, Lewin Group, has generated controversy of another sort: presenting itself as an impartial healthcare consulting company when it is part of a corporation with a big vested interest in the policy options Lewin evaluates. During the Congressional deliberations over healthcare reform in 2009 Lewin produced analyses concluding that the adoption of a public option would result in a mass exodus from private plans and jeopardize their future. A Lewin executive made the alarmist statement that the private insurance industry “might just fizzle out altogether” and helped to sway lawmakers to omit the option from the Affordable Care Act. Like QSSI, the Lewin Group is a unit of Optuminsight.

UnitedHealth is also tied to what is emerging as the new focus of anti-Obamacare rage: reports that insurance companies are cancelling large numbers of policies. This is being portrayed as a betrayal of Obama’s earlier promise that people with coverage would be able to keep it. Yet what is really going on is that insurers are complying with provisions of the ACA that bar them from continuing to sell substandard policies.

Those policies—with huge deductibles and big holes in coverage—were sold not only by fly-by-night companies. Aetna, for example, was pushing these bare-bones plans as early as 1999. UnitedHealth Group made a big push into this market in 2003 when it acquired Golden Rule Financial, which specialized in low-cost individual plans, for $500 million. The spread of such policies was one of the main justifications for healthcare reform.

The repeated appearances of UnitedHealth subsidiaries amid the tribulations of the ACA are reminders that the Obama Administration made a Faustian bargain with the private sector in designing healthcare reform. The question now is whether it can reclaim its soul.

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

The Outsourcing Customer is Always Wrong

Thursday, October 24th, 2013
Image from OptumInsight website

Image from OptumInsight website

The corporate executives who testified at a House hearing on the botched rollout of the federal healthcare portal apparently sprayed themselves with Teflon before heading to Capitol Hill. Blame for the fiasco did not stick to these contractors as Republican members of the Energy & Commerce Committee sought to implicate the Obama Administration and the Democrats focused on defending the Affordable Care Act.

Representatives from four contractors — CGI Federal, QSSI, Serco and Equifax — took advantage of the situation by denying any serious shortcomings on their part. In fact, they each claimed that their individual pieces of Healthcare.gov were working fine and claimed to be puzzled as to why the overall system was not working properly. When pressed, they implied that the federal agency that had commissioned their work — the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services — had not given them adequate time for testing. In other words, they acted as if they were innocent bystanders at someone else’s train wreck.

Yet these were companies that received the lion’s share of the lucrative contracts awarded by CMS for the creation of the federal portal. CGI and QSSI alone received a total of $143 million. They were not the people who delivered the Chinese food or emptied the wastebaskets while the real work was being done by others.

These contractors present themselves quite differently when touting their services. On its website, CGI brags: “With deep experience in developing and integrating business, clinical and IT solutions for public and private sector health organizations across Europe and North America, CGI helps clients anticipate challenges and achieve real transformation.” Speaking specifically about health insurance exchanges (HIX), the site says: “Because exchanges must provide many different functions, the soundest approaches bring together expertise and best practices in federal and state health programs, commercial insurance, data exchange, portals, e-commerce over the cloud, and financial management. CGI brings all of this expertise to the table, along with direct experience in developing sustainable HIX programs.”

Similar boasts are made by QSSI, which stands for Quality Software Services Inc.: “Bringing together the most talented personnel in the industry, QSSI collaborates with both the public sector and private sector to maximize performance and create sustainable value for our customers.” The website of QSSI’s parent OptumInsight declares: “We’re making the most of our leadership position in health and human services technology by helping to transform government agencies into efficient, cost-effective programs with decision support, informatics, and program analysis.”

There is a special irony in the presence of QSSI and OptumInsight at the center of this scandal. OptumInsight, which purchased QSSI last year, is a unit of UnitedHealth Group, whose UnitedHealthcare unit is one of the country’s largest health insurance providers.

In other words, one of the for-profit insurers that the Affordable Care Act went to such great lengths to preserve — despite their countless abuses — is closely linked to the mess surrounding the web portal that is supposed to help people in 36 states sign up for the coverage that it and its counterparts will provide.

Last year Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley and House Energy Chair Fred Upton, both Republicans, raised questions about potential conflicts of interest in the wake of UnitedHealth’s purchase of QSSI, but that issue seems to have been forgotten in the quest to blame the Obama Administration for all the ills of Healthcare.gov. Also largely overlooked is the fact that the Inspector General of the Department of Health and Human Services has criticized QSSI, whose employees have access to sensitive information on individuals, for not sufficiently implementing CMS security protocols with regard to thumb drives.

In his testimony before the House Energy committee, Andrew Slavitt of QSSI’s parent company, said: “We do understand the frustration many people have felt since Healthcare.gov was launched,” yet he in effect denied any responsibility for causing that frustration.

So it goes in the world of outsourcing: the customer is always wrong and the company, whatever its shortcomings, gets off scot free.

The Corporate Raid on State Tax Revenue

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

One of the usual canards of the corporate tax reduction crowd is that high U.S. rates force large companies to invest offshore instead of at home. The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy and Citizens for Tax Justice have just issued the second installment of their detailed refutation of the myth of oppressive rates.

After putting out a report last month showing that many large corporations end up paying far less than the statutory federal rate (so much less that their rates often become negative), ITEP and CTJ now demonstrate that the story is the same at the state level. Their study, Corporate Tax Dodging in the Fifty States, lists 68 Fortune 500 companies that managed to pay no state income tax at all in at least one year during the period from 2008 through 2010 despite posting a total of nearly $117 billion in pre-tax U.S. profits during those no-tax years.

Sixteen of the companies—including the likes of DuPont, Tenet Healthcare, International Paper, Intel and  Peabody Energy—had more than one no-tax year. DuPont, Pepco Holdings and American Electric Power contributed nothing to state coffers in all three years. The report points out that, if the 265 companies in the sample had all paid the average 6.2 percent average corporate tax rate on their combined $1.33 trillion in U.S. profits, their state tax bill would have been about $82 billion. Instead, they paid only $40 billion, meaning that states were left without $42 billion in revenue that could have been used to help pay for education, healthcare, transportation, public safety and other key state government functions.

A system that allows many companies to sidestep millions of dollars in state tax payments can hardly be called onerous and certainly can’t be the reason for investing overseas. It is thus no surprise that the ITEP/CTJ list of firms with negative or minimal tax rates includes corporations that engage in extensive offshoring; among them are Eli Lilly, General Electric, Hewlett Packard and Merck.

At the same time, the key state tax dodgers include some manufacturing companies that have (at least in part) bucked the offshoring trend and made substantial investments in the United States. Chief among them are Intel and Boeing.

Intel, which has been spending billions on semiconductor fabrication plants in state such as Arizona, and Boeing, which focuses its aircraft assembly in Washington State and South Carolina, are major recipients of the kind of company-specific tax breaks that the ITEP/CTJ report cites as one of the reasons for the decline of state corporate income tax collections.

Intel has been playing the subsidy game in earnest since 1993, when it announced plans for what was then an unprecedented $1 billion investment in a new chip plant, to be built in a suburb of Albuquerque called Rio Rancho. The company pressured local officials to provide what would ultimately amount to about $455 million in property tax abatements and sales tax exemptions on the equipment purchased for the facility.

Soon after getting its way in New Mexico, Intel put the squeeze on officials in Arizona, where it proposed to build another plant in Chandler, a suburb of Phoenix. The company received some $82 million in property tax abatements, sales tax exemptions and corporate income tax credits. In 2005 Intel strong-armed the state to change the method by which it calculates corporate taxes to a system known as single sales factor, which allowed Intel and other companies with lots of property and a big payroll but relatively low sales in the state to enjoy enormous tax reductions.

In 1999 Intel announced plans for a large expansion of its semiconductor operations in Oregon but made it clear that the investment was contingent on receiving a property tax abatement that turned out to be worth an estimated $200 million over 15 years. In 2005 Intel got the county to extend the property tax break to 2025, locking in an estimated $579 million in additional savings. Intel also enjoys a substantial reduction in corporate income taxes thanks to Oregon’s decision to join the single sales factor bandwagon.

Boeing has also sought special tax breaks and other subsidies in multiple states. When the company was ready to begin production of its much-anticipated Dreamliner, it forced Washington to compete with around 20 other states for the work and agreed to stay there only after the legislature in 2003 approved a package of research & development tax credits and cuts in Business & Occupation taxes (the state’s substitute for a corporate income tax), sales taxes and property taxes that together were estimated to be worth $3.2 billion over 20 years.

Rather than showing its appreciation to Washington, the company went shopping for a better deal for the second Dreamliner production line. It chose South Carolina, where it was awarded a subsidy package that has been valued at more than $900 million and is able to take advantage of a “right to work” law that discourages unionization. The Machinists union accused the company of retaliating against union activism in Washington, but the complaint has just been withdrawn as part of a deal in which Boeing will build its new 737 in the Seattle area.

While it was once taken for granted that large U.S. corporations would do most of their investing at home, companies such as Boeing and Intel now act as if they are doing the country a favor with their domestic projects and expect to be rewarded handsomely in the form of special state tax breaks on top of those business-friendly provisions available to all firms.

Far from being held back by tax rates, large U.S. corporations invest offshore or onshore as they please while contributing as little as possible to the cost of public services.

The Real Cost of Obama’s Trip to India

Friday, November 5th, 2010

The rightwing media machine is up in arms about a dubious report that the cost of President Obama’s trip to India will turn out to be more than $200 million a day, for a 2,000-person entourage. The White House calls the cost figure wildly inflated.

The manufactured controversy about cost is taking attention away from what should be the main story: who is accompanying the President on the trip and what do they hope to get out of it. A big part of Obama’s entourage will be scores of top U.S. corporate executives, who are seeking Obama’s help in initiating or finalizing big deals with the Indian government and Indian corporations. Numerous other U.S. companies are not sending executives on Obama’s trip but are still hoping the visit will advance their interests in India.

Among the deals that have been reported are: the sale of ten military transport planes worth some $5 billion by Boeing and the sale of $800 million in fighter jet engines to the Indian military and $500 million in heavy duty gas turbines to India’s Reliance Energy, both by General Electric. Other dealmakers are said to include Eaton Corp., John Deere, Caterpillar and Harley-Davidson.

In other words, a President endlessly denounced by the Right as a socialist, is serving as a shill for some of the country’s largest corporations. This is far from the first time an American president has acted as salesman-in-chief for American products, and the White House makes no apologies for the trip, claiming that it will result in the creation of thousands of jobs.

The problem is that it is far from clear that landing big deals for U.S.-based corporations will result in many jobs for U.S. workers. The list of companies with executives going to India with President Obama (or that stand to benefit from the trip) include some of the most notorious practitioners of offshore outsourcing.

Take the two heaviest hitters on the trip. Boeing has made a science of shifting work from its traditional manufacturing operations around Seattle to factories around the world. It has clashed repeatedly with its unionized workers over the issue. And when it’s not sending jobs abroad, it moves them to domestic non-union plants, such as its big new operation in South Carolina.

General Electric is another unabashed offshorer. In the early 1990s about one-quarter of the company’s employees were outside the United States; at the end of last year, 56 percent of them were. What’s especially frustrating is that GE is offshoring jobs in emerging fields such as renewable energy, thus depriving many American workers of a shot at the jobs of the future.

Eaton, a diversified manufacturer of industrial products, now has 27 facilities in China with some 10,000 workers as well as four research and development centers in the country. In April, John Deere opened a manufacturing plant and parts distribution center in Russia. It already had factories in low-wage countries such as Brazil, China, Ecuador, India and Mexico. Caterpillar has eight plants in China, eight in Mexico, three in India and many more in other countries. It recently opened a logistics center in China to support what a company press release called its “growing manufacturing footprint” in that country.

Harley-Davidson is an icon of U.S. manufacturing, but it just announced plans to open a new plant in India to assemble U.S.-made motorcycle kits. It is unclear whether this will increase or decrease jobs at the company’s American plants, which have been exporting fully assembled motorcycles to the Indian market.

It’s true that these companies have to do a certain amount of production in countries such as China and India to sell to local customers, yet it is also undeniable that these firms and others seeking benefits from Obama’s trip have been reducing manufacturing operations in the United States that previously supplied goods for both domestic and foreign markets.

There is no guarantee that the jobs Obama hopes to generate with his sales trip to India will end up going to Americans. The companies whose wares he is promoting are in many cases American only in terms of where their headquarters are located. They are all too willing to destroy the livelihood of U.S. workers in their global pursuit of cheaper labor and fatter profits.

That kind of behavior costs this country much more than what the President’s delegation could ever spend on its trip to India.

Sucked Into the Offshoring Whirlpool

Friday, February 26th, 2010

Critics of the $787 billion Recovery Act complain it is not doing enough to revive the economy, but they rarely ask why the companies that are receiving stimulus contracts and grants are not hiring more people. Now one of those recipients is facing a growing controversy over its employment practices in a case that helps explain why jobs remain in short supply.

Appliance maker Whirlpool is under fire from organized labor for its decision to shut down a 1,100-worker refrigerator plant in Evansville, Indiana and shift the work to a company factory in Mexico. The announcement was actually made last August, but it did not get national attention until recently, when union activists realized that Whirlpool had been given a $19.3 million grant by the U.S. Department of Energy to develop “smart appliances.” The funding was part of the Recovery Act’s $4.5 billion pot of money to encourage the development of the smart transmission grid.

The grant was not directed to the Evansville plant, but unions are nonetheless indignant that a company engaged in exporting jobs to a foreign low-wage location is receiving federal aid. The company made things worse for itself by warning workers not to participate in a planned protest demonstration featuring AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. The union at the plant, IUE-CWA Local 808, has filed an unfair labor practice charge over the warning.

This situation shows the difficulty of using stimulus funds or other incentives to generate employment at a time when so many large corporations no longer have an interest in producing things in the United States.

Consider Whirlpool. For decades its production activities were almost entirely located in the USA. In the 1980s that began to change as the company started to focus more on overseas markets. It bought large shares in the Canadian company Inglis, Mexico’s Vitromatic and then the European appliance business of the Dutch company Philips. In 1990 Forbes wrote that Whirlpool was “going global—with a vengeance.”

If Whirlpool’s foreign expansion was meant only to meet demand in foreign markets, that would be one thing. But the company began a process of reducing its manufacturing in the United States and other developed countries while increasing it in foreign low-wage havens. One of its favorite havens was Mexico. In the late 1980s the company closed numerous U.S. plants and shifted production to Mexican maquiladora plants. In 1996 the plant in Evansville lost about 265 jobs when some refrigerator production was moved to Mexico. In 2003 Whirlpool shifted some production from its facility in Fort Smith, Arkansas to a new plant south of the border.

The latter move came a decade after a bitter dispute between the company and the workers in Fort Smith represented by the Allied Industrial Workers union. In 1989 Whirlpool unilaterally imposed concessions on members of AIW’s Local 370, prompting the union to launch a national boycott of the company. In 1991 the head of the local confronted Whirlpool executives and directors at the company’s annual meeting, calling on them to abandon their “narrow-minded, shortsighted, union-busting behavior.” The dispute was not settled until 1993.

In 2006 the Evansville and Fort Smith plants lost a total of about 1,200 jobs to Mexico.  Or, in the antiseptic terms of Whirlpool’s press release: “The company also is adjusting its workforce levels at several of its North American manufacturing facilities to optimize production levels and take advantage of its expanded manufacturing footprint.”

In other words, the current shutdown plan in Evansville is just the latest in a series of “adjustments” by which Whirlpool is ridding itself of decently paid U.S. workers and replacing them with much cheaper labor abroad. The 1,100 losing their jobs are the remnant of a Whirlpool workforce in Evansville that back in the early 1970s totaled nearly 10,000 (photo). Companywide, 26 of Whirlpool’s 37 production facilities are now located outside the United States.

It did not seem to occur to Whirlpool that there was anything unseemly about accepting federal stimulus funds at a time when it was closing a domestic plant. In fact, something similar happened seven years ago. In 2003, during a period when the downsizing of the Evansville plant was already under way, the company accepted a $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy – via the Indiana Department of Commerce – to help develop a new manufacturing process for energy-efficient refrigerators produced in Evansville (source: Associated Press, February 8, 2003 via Nexis).

Until the federal government is prepared to do something serious about offshoring, it should at least refrain from giving financial assistance to firms that engage in the practice, even if the aid is going to a different part of the company—and even if it is for a laudable purpose such as promoting energy efficiency. The federal government now has a (non-public) contractor misconduct database to help it avoid giving procurement awards to bad actors. Perhaps there should also be a list of job-exporting companies which would be ineligible for federal aid until they reaffirm their commitment to domestic production.

Can the Redlining of U.S. Workers Be Stopped?

Friday, November 20th, 2009

wind turbineWe’re meant to believe that corporations make their investment decisions based on carefully considered financial and competitive considerations. Yet a recent announcement by a Chinese manufacturer of turbines for wind energy shows how political pressure can quickly change business priorities.

In late October the company, A-Power Energy Generation Systems, announced that it had been chosen to supply some 240 turbines for a large wind farm planned for Texas. That would have been just another in a long series of manufacturing-goes-to-China stories, but for reports that the group launching the $1.5 billion project—a joint venture of China’s Shenyang Power, Texas-based Cielo Wind Power and private equity firm U.S. Renewable Energy Group—was intending to take advantage of U.S. government funding through the Recovery Act.

New York Senator Chuck Schumer raised a stink about this in an open letter to Energy Secretary Steven Chu, highlighting reports that while the Texas wind farm would create a modest number of local jobs, the much bigger employment impact—2,000 to 3,000 jobs—would be felt at A-Power’s factories in China.

The ensuing uproar—with protests coming from figures as divergent as Steelworkers union president Leo Gerard and rightwing Missouri Senator Kit Bond—got the joint venture’s attention. While not abandoning the plan to import turbines for the Texas wind farm, A-Power and U.S. Renewable Energy Group announced on November 17 that they would construct a new wind turbine factory in the United States with a workforce of about 1,000.

That’s good news for the job-starved American economy, but all the attention given to A-Power has obscured a set of larger problems concerning the U.S. renewable energy industry.

The first is that the operation of facilities such as wind farms does not generate much employment—once built, they basically run themselves. The real employment potential is in manufacturing the turbines and other components used to generate wind and solar energy.

The disturbing fact is that, with the exception of General Electric, large U.S. companies have shown little interest in domestic production of these components. This has created an opening for foreign firms such as Gamesa (from Spain), Vestas (Denmark), Siemens (Germany) and Sanyo (Japan) to capture a large share of U.S. production of wind and solar components. Over the past few years they have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in plants from Pennsylvania to Oregon—and have often received lavish state and local economic development subsidies for doing so.

Unfortunately, the economic crisis has taken its toll on this sector, and expansion plans are being curtailed or postponed. For example, wind turbine maker Vestas, which has invested heavily in Colorado and planned to boost its workforce in that state to 2,500, recently said it would slow its pace of hiring.

To make matters worse, some of the newer U.S.-based wind and solar manufacturing companies that claim to be interested in domestic production have been lured by the siren call of cheap overseas labor. Evergreen Solar, for instance, recently revealed that it plans to shift assembly of solar panels from its heavily subsidized plant in Devens, Massachusetts to Wuhan, China. It would follow in the footsteps of U.S. firms such as First Solar, which already does most of its manufacturing in Malaysia, and TPI Composites, which produces wind turbine blades in Mexico and China.

It’s also not the case that foreign firms are always worse than domestic ones when it comes to respecting the rights of workers. Within the wind and solar sector there are U.S. companies that seek to weaken their unions (such as GE) or keep them out altogether (e.g., DMI Industries, which fought a Teamsters organizing drive). At the same time, there is Spain’s Gamesa, which accepted the desire of its workers in Pennsylvania to unionize and has developed a cooperative relationship with the Steelworkers.

From a labor perspective, the issue is not whether a company is foreign or domestic. What counts is whether it is redlining U.S. workers or giving them a chance to participate in producing the components of the economy of the future.

Satyam’s Fraudulent “Maquiladora of the Mind”

Thursday, January 8th, 2009

It was only a few years ago that a group of offshore outsourcing companies based in India seemed poised to take over a large portion of the U.S. economy. Business propagandists insisted that work ranging from low-level data input to skilled professional work such as financial analysis could be done faster and much cheaper by workers hunched over computer terminals in cities such as Bangalore. The New York Times once described one of these offshoring companies as “a maquiladora of the mind.”

Among the most aggressive of the Indian firms was Satyam Computer Services Ltd., which signed up blue-chip clients such as Ford Motor, Merrill Lynch, Texas Instruments and Yahoo. In a 2004 report I wrote for the U.S. high-tech workers organization WashTech, I found that Satyam was also among the offshoring companies that were doing work for state government agencies. It was hired, for example, as a subcontractor by the U.S. company Healthaxis to develop a system for handling applications for medical insurance services provided by the Washington State Health Care Authority. As it turned out, Healthaxis’s contract was terminated, allegedly because of late delivery and poor quality in the work done by Satyam.

The Washington State fiasco may have been an early omen of things to come. Satyam has just admitted that for years it cooked its books and engaged in widespread financial wrongdoing. The revelation came in a letter sent to the company’s board of directors by Satyam founder and chairman B. Ramalinga Raju (photo), who simultaneously tendered his resignation.

Raju wrote that what started as “a marginal gap between actual operating profit and the one reflected in the books” eventually “attained unmanageable proportions” as the company grew. The fictitious cash balance grew to more than US$1 billion. “It was like riding a tiger,” Raju colorfully wrote, “not knowing how to get off without being eaten.”

While admitting that he engaged in very creative accounting, Raju insisted he did not personally benefit from the fraud, denying for instance that he had sold any of his shares in the company. I guess it is meant to be some consolation that among his sins Raju is not guilty of insider trading.

Apart from Raju, the party most on the hot seat is the company’s auditor, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, whose Indian unit gave Satyam’s financial reports a clean bill of health. The Satyam scandal is being called India’s Enron. It should probably also be called India’s Arthur Andersen as this seems to be another case in which an auditor was either oblivious to widespread accounting misconduct by one of its clients or complicit in it.

Some soul-searching is probably also in order for the many large U.S. corporations that have not hesitated to take jobs away from American workers and ship the work off to Indian companies such as Satyam. The revelation that much of the work has been going to a crooked company is all the more galling.

Over the Counter Intelligence

Wednesday, June 4th, 2008

Tim Shorrock, a veteran investigative journalist and a longtime subscriber to the Dirt Diggers Digest, has just come out with a book called Spies for Hire: The Secret World of Intelligence Outsourcing. Shorrock describes how an activity that used to be handled by spooks on the federal payroll has been steadily transformed into a $50 billion Intelligence-Industrial Complex.

Thanks to the contracting scandals surrounding Halliburton and its former subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root, the public learned of the extent to which the Pentagon has turned over routine functions to private military companies. The outrageous behavior of Blackwater has highlighted the use of mercenaries to protect U.S. diplomats and other VIPs in Iraq.

Shorrock shines a light on another group of corporations that are carrying out a more sensitive function that most people have no idea is being handed over to the private sector. Careful readers of the revelations concerning abuses at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq would have learned that interrogators alleged to have abused detainees included civilians employed by a company called CACI. But that is only the tip of a lucrative iceberg, Shorrock shows.

For example, he writes, more than half the people working at the super-secret National Counterterrorism Center in Virginia are employees of companies such as Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), BAE Systems and Lockheed Martin. The Center’s terrorist database is maintained by The Analysis Corporation, which subcontracted collection activities to CACI.

Since 9/11, Shorrock says, the Central Intelligence Agency has been spending 50-60 percent of its budget (or about $2.5 billion a year) on contractors—both individuals and companies. At the CIA and its sister spook agencies: “Tasks that are now outsourced include running spy networks out of embassies, intelligence analysis, signals intelligence (SIGINT) collection, covert operations, and the interrogation of enemy prisoners.”

Shorrock devotes an entire chapter to Booz Allen Hamilton, known to most people as a management consultant for large corporations but which pioneered the intelligence outsourcing industry (though it recently agreed to sell its federal business to the Carlyle Group). When Mike McConnell, a former Booz Allen executive, was named by President Bush as Director of National Intelligence, it was the first time, Shorrock notes, that a contractor was put in charge of the country’s entire spy apparatus.

Spies for Hire has much more to offer that cannot be adequately summarized here. I recommend that you read it in full. But let me let also note that profiles of some of the intelligence contractors discussed by Shorrock—such as CACI and ManTech International—can be found on the Crocodyl wiki to which I contribute. Also note that the updated edition of Jeremy Scahill’s valuable book Blackwater, recently issued in paperback, has a discussion (p.453 forward) on the mercenary company’s move into another form of privatized intelligence—a product called Total Intelligence Solutions that is designed to bring “CIA-style” services to Fortune 500 companies.

The Outsourcing Threat Behind the Southwest Airlines Scandal

Friday, March 7th, 2008

As I write this, Google News says it contains nearly 900 current stories about the scandal over maintenance lapses at Southwest Airlines—lapses that prompted the Federal Aviation Administration yesterday to propose a record $10.2 million civil penalty against the carrier. Yet fewer than ten of those stories make any reference to the broad threat against airline safety: outsourcing.

Among the handful of items mentioning outsourcing is a statement put out today by Teamsters President James Hoffa. (The mechanics at Southwest are actually represented by an independent union.) Less than a month ago, the Teamsters and the Business Travel Coalition co-sponsored what they called a national summit on aircraft maintenance outsourcing. In addition to a video presentation by Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota—who today revealed more dirt about Southwest and the FAA—the event included a speech by William McGee of Consumer Reports, whose March 2007 article on maintenance outsourcing was titled “An Accident Waiting to Happen?”

The safety threats from outsourcing have also been cited for years by the Inspector General of the Department of Transportation (FAA’s parent agency).  A 2003 report by the IG found that major carriers were outsourcing some 47 percent of their total maintenance costs. The IG’s examination of conditions at a sample of repair stations used in the outsourcing found that 86 percent had “discrepancies” such as the use of improper parts and equipment and outdated manuals. A 2005 follow-up report found that the majors had upped the outsourced portion of their maintenance spending to 53 percent, with Southwest well above the average at 64 percent (see page 8).

Last June, the IG told Congress that the majors were now spending 64 percent of their maintenance dollars on contractors. He went on to point to the “challenges” facing the FAA in dealing with the continuing growth of outsourcing, including the fact that it did not have a good system for assigning its inspectors. But the agency told the IG it was addressing the problem—by commissioning a study from…a contractor.