Archive for the ‘Unions’ Category

The Wrongs of States’ Rights

Thursday, April 14th, 2016

The publication of the Panama Papers is a bombshell, though the fallout is being felt much more in countries such as Iceland than in the United States. It’s true that the revelations about offshore tax havens have mentioned domestic counterparts such as Delaware, Nevada and Wyoming, but officials in those states don’t seem to think that any action needs to be taken. As the headline of an article in the BNA Daily Tax Report put it: STATES GIVE GROUP SHRUG TO PANAMA PAPERS.

One reason for the tepid reaction is that the criticisms have been heard before. As BNA points out, a 2006 report from the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) listed the three states as being especially appealing to those seeking to create shell companies.

Another basis for complacency by the states is that their practices are part of a long and unfortunate tradition in the United States politely called federalism, but which is really a race to the bottom when it comes to oversight of corporations and the wealthy.

This trend dates back to the 19th Century, when the efforts of tycoons such as John D. Rockefeller to create vast industrial empires came up against the fact that state laws governing corporate charters put restrictions on the size and scope of a corporation’s activities, including the ownership of out-of-state companies. Rockefeller’s flagship firm Standard Oil of Ohio tried to get around this by creating the Standard Oil trust, in which affiliates were nominally independent but were actually controlled by a centralized board chosen by Rockefeller. Similar trusts were created in a variety of other industries.

Standard Oil’s transparent effort to circumvent state law was eventually struck down by the Ohio Supreme Court, but by that time Rockefeller and other robber barons had a new tool at their disposal: the willingness of some states to water down their chartering regulations to make them more attractive to big business.

The pioneer of this practice was New Jersey, which adopted a series of legislative measures from the 1870s through the 1890s to make its regulations more business-friendly. During this period, New Jersey became the destination of choice for trusts looking to legitimize themselves by reincorporating in a state that had no problem with bigness. That position was reinforced after Standard Oil made the Garden State its new base of operations. Muckraker Lincoln Steffens took to calling New Jersey the “traitor state.”

Other states sought to get in on this action. In 1899 Delaware adopted a corporation law that was even looser than New Jersey’s and had lower incorporation fees and franchise taxes. After New Jersey later changed course and went back to stricter corporation laws, it was Delaware that became the new mecca of corporations and has remained so to the present day.

Looser chartering procedures not only helped large corporations get larger but also made it easier for both businesses and wealthy individuals to set up the kind of shell companies highlighted in the Panama Papers. The ability and willingness of states to compete with one another to offer the most corporate-friendly practices goes well beyond company formation and governance.

Two areas in which the effects have been most pernicious are economic development and labor relations. Starting in the 1930s but especially during the past few decades, states have been willing to hand over larger and larger “incentive” packages to corporations to lure investments.  For example, in 2014, following a multi-state competition, tax haven Nevada gave away nearly $1.3 billion in taxpayer revenue to get Tesla Motors to locate an electric-car battery plant in the state.

Some states also lure companies with the promise of weak or non-existent labor unions. Ever since the Tart-Hartley Act of 1947, states have had the right to enact laws outlawing union security provisions in collective bargaining agreements. These so-called right-to-work laws tend to weaken the ability of unions to organize while saddling existing unions with lots of free riders who don’t contribute to the cost of running the organization.

It’s widely understood that the notion of states’ rights is often a smokescreen for racial discrimination, but it’s also part of what enables other retrograde practices such as union-busting, corporate welfare and tax dodging.

Trump’s Corporate Rap Sheet

Thursday, April 7th, 2016

For more than 30 years, Donald Trump has been almost continuously in the public eye, portraying himself as the epitome of business success and shrewd dealmaking.

He took a business founded by his father to build modest middle-class housing in the outer boroughs of New York City and transformed it into a high-profile operation focused on glitzy luxury condominiums, hotels, casinos and golf courses around the world. Operating through the Trump Organization, his family holding company, Trump also capitalized on his reality-TV-enhanced name recognition in a wide range of licensing deals.

Trump’s decision to enter the race for the Republican presidential nomination in 2015 has brought a great deal of new attention to his wide range of business activities and the controversies associated with many of them.  Those controversies — involving issues such as alleged racial discrimination, lobbying violations, investor and consumer deception, tax abatements, workplace safety violations, union avoidance and environmental harm — are summarized in my new Corporate Rap Sheet on the Trump Organization. Here are some highlights:

  • In 1973 the Justice Department filed a suit in federal court accusing Donald Trump and his father Fred Trump of discriminating against African-Americans in apartment rentals, mostly in Brooklyn and Queens. Donald Trump vigorously disputed the charges and filed a $100 million countersuit while complaining that the government was trying to pressure him to rent to “welfare clients.” Trump claimed that doing so would be unfair to other tenants and warned that it would result in “massive fleeing.” In 1975 the Trumps signed an agreement with the Justice Department in which they did not admit to past discrimination but promised not to discriminate against African-Americans and other minorities in the future.
  • In 1991 the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement announced that the Trump Castle Casino Resort, then owned by Donald Trump, would pay $30,000 as part of a settlement of a case in which Trump’s father was found to have improperly lent $3.5 million to the Atlantic City casino by purchasing gambling chips not intended to be used for bets. The transaction, designed to help the casino’s cash-flow problems, was allowed to proceed when Fred Trump agreed to apply for a license allowing him to lend money to the business.
  • In 1998 the Trump Taj Mahal, then still controlled by Trump, was fined $477,000 for currency transaction reporting violations. The Taj Mahal subsequently received numerous warnings about such issues, and in 2015, by which time it was controlled by Carl Icahn, the Atlantic City casino was fined $10 million for “willful and repeated violations of the Bank Secrecy Act.”
  • In 2000 Trump and some of his associates had to pay $250,000 and issue a public apology to resolve a case brought by the New York Temporary State Commission on Lobbying over the failure to disclose that they had secretly financed newspaper advertisements opposing casino gambling in the Catskills. Trump was said to have been concerned that Catskills casinos would siphon business from the Atlantic City casinos he owned at the time.
  • In 2002 the Securities and Exchange Commission announced that Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts had “recklessly” misled investors in a 1999 earnings release that used pro forma figures to tout the company’s purportedly positive results but failed to disclose that they were primarily attributable to an unusual one-time gain rather than ongoing operations. No penalty was imposed on the company, which consented to the SEC’s cease-and-desist order.
  • In 2013 New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman filed a civil lawsuit against the Trump Entrepreneur Initiative (formerly known as Trump University), its former president and Donald Trump personally “for engaging in persistent fraudulent, illegal and deceptive conduct.” Schneiderman alleged that the business “misled consumers into paying for a series of expensive courses that did not deliver on their promises.” The suit asked for “full restitution for the more than 5,000 consumers nationwide who were defrauded of over $40 million in the scheme, disgorgement of profits, as well as costs and penalties and injunctive relief prohibiting these types of illegal practices going forward.” The case is pending.
  • In 2006 Donald Trump and the Los Angeles developer Irongate announced plans for a luxury condominium  and hotel project in North Baja, Mexico, south of San Diego. Two years later, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported that the project still had not received all of its required permits and was falling behind schedule. In 2009, as the delayed continued, Trump removed his name from the project, which soon failed. Purchasers sued Trump, saying they were misled into thinking they were buying into a Trump development rather than one that simply licensed his name. In 2013 Trump reached a settlement with the plaintiffs; the details were not disclosed.
  • After dealers at the Trump Plaza voted overwhelmingly to join the United Auto Workers union in 2007, the management of the casino filed a challenge with the National Labor Relations Board. The UAW called the move an effort to delay collective bargaining. The stance of Trump management may have been a factor in the UAW’s narrow loss in a subsequent representation election at the Trump Marina. The vote at Trump Plaza was certified, but the UAW had difficulty negotiating a contract, even after the NLRB ordered the company to bargain in good faith. It appears that Trump managers dragged out the legal dispute until the Trump Plaza closed in 2014. In December 2015 the management of the non-casino Trump International Hotel Las Vegas challenged a vote by workers to be represented by the Culinary Workers Union Local 226 and the Bartenders Union Local 165 (photo). A hearing officer for the NLRB rejected the challenge, and the unions were certified in April 2016.
  • In April 2016 the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission announced that about 20,000 Ivanka Trump-branded women’s scarves made in China were being recalled because they did not meet federal flammability standards for clothing textiles, thus posing a burn risk. The importer of the scarves, GBG Accessories, has a licensing arrangement with Ivanka Trump, daughter of Donald Trump and an executive at the Trump Organization.

The full Corporate Rap Sheet on the Trump Organization can be found here.

Amazon Delivers Exploitation

Thursday, January 28th, 2016

workhardThe 2015 financial results just announced by Amazon.com leave no doubt: the “everything store” is well on its way to dethroning Wal-Mart as the king of retail. Unfortunately, it also seems intent on taking over the role of the worst employer.

Amazon’s revenues leaped 20 percent last year to $107 billion as it dominated online commerce, especially during the holiday season. Profitability remained weak, but that’s a result of heavy spending to build a network of distribution centers enabling superfast delivery. It’s not because Amazon is generous to its 150,000 employees.

On the contrary, lousy working conditions have been a fact of life at Amazon since its earliest years. In 1999 the Washington Post published a story about the pressure put on customer service representatives to work at breakneck speed. “If it’s hard for you to go fast,” one Amazon manager told the newspaper, “it can be hard for you here.”

Amazon — which adopted the employee motto “Work hard, have fun and make history” — successfully opposed union organizing drives at its distribution centers using traditional retrograde employer tactics such as captive meetings and the closing of facilities where pro-union sentiment ran too high.

In the absence of unions, Amazon was able to go on using temp agencies to hire workers, who could thus be easily terminated if they did not meet the company’s unreasonable productivity demands. Amazon even skimped on things such as providing a tolerable temperature level in its vast warehouses. In 2011 the Allentown (Pennsylvania) Morning Call published a lengthy exposé on working conditions at Amazon’s sprawling Lehigh Valley distribution center, where temperatures rose so high during the summer that the overtaxed workers suffered from dehydration and other forms of heat stress. People collapsed so frequently that Amazon arranged for ambulances to be standing by outside the facility. It was only after the story gained national coverage that Amazon broke down and installed air conditioning.

The intense pace of work has also contributed to accidents. In June 2014 the Occupational Safety and Health Administration cited third-party logistics company Genco and three staffing services for serious violations in connection with a December 2013 incident in which a temp worker was crushed to death at an Amazon distribution center in Avenel, New Jersey. OSHA proposed fines of $6,000 against each of the companies. The agency said it was also investigating a fatality at another Amazon distribution center in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Amazon itself was fined $7,000 at its warehouse in Campbellsville, Kentucky.

Amazon has also been the subject of complaints regarding violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act, including the failure to compensate workers for time spent waiting in long lines at the end of shifts to be searched to make sure they aren’t stealing merchandise. In October 2015 drivers for the Amazon Prime Now delivery service in California filed a class action lawsuit charging that they were being misclassified as independent contractors and thus denied protection under state laws governing minimum wages, overtime pay and business expense reimbursement.

Reports about harsh working conditions have also surfaced in connection with Amazon’s facilities in Europe. In 2013 a German television program documented the brutal treatment of temp workers brought in from Poland, Spain and other countries to help with the Christmas rush at Amazon’s German distribution centers. The abuses were said to be carried out by black-uniformed guards employed by a security company hired by Amazon, which responded to the scandal by ending its relationship with the firm. Amazon was also confronted by its regular German distribution center employees, who began staging strikes to support demands for higher pay. Amazon, unlike most domestic and foreign employers, refused to cooperate with the country’s powerful labor unions.

Labor protests have also taken place in response to conditions at Amazon distribution centers in the United Kingdom. In 2013 the BBC sent an undercover reporter to work at one of those centers and aired a program describing the hectic work pace and quoting an academic expert as saying that it created “increased risk of mental illness and physical illness.”

Rather than improving working conditions, Amazon has focused on replacing workers with automation, a move assisted by the 2012 purchase of the robotics company Kiva Systems. A February 2015 article in the Seattle Times reported that a new Amazon warehouse in Washington was “teeming with hundreds of Kiva robots. Those are the squat, coffee table-sized gadgets that buzz around, lifting and moving shelves of products, delivering them to workers who pluck items to be shipped off to customers.” It seems that the robots are not making things easier for workers; instead, they are probably helping to intensify the pace at which the reduced workforce is expected to toil.

Labor controversies are not limited to distribution centers. Charges of abysmal working conditions have also been raised in connection with Mechanical Turk, a service created by Amazon to parcel out repetitive online tasks to thousands of individuals who are paid on a piecework basis. It’s been estimated that these “crowdworkers” earn an average of about $2 an hour.

In August 2015 the New York Times published an investigation of Amazon’s white-collar workforce, describing a situation in which employees were compelled to work long hours and were encouraged to criticize one another mercilessly. The rigid system was said to be governed by a series of principles promulgated by company founder and CEO Jeff Bezos that everyone was expected to follow. Those who failed to adjust to the system were dismissed.

When Amazon released its diversity data for the first time in 2014, the percentage of the U.S. workforce that was black or Hispanic was nearly 25 percent, far higher than at other tech companies. Yet subsequent data indicated that many of those minorities were employed at its warehouses and in other relatively low-skill jobs. Just 10 percent of Amazon’s executive and technical employees are black or Hispanic.

Speed-up, wage theft, union-busting, safety and health abuses: Amazon stocks the full inventory of exploitative labor practices.

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New in Corporate Rap Sheets: Food giant ConAgra, touting its Healthy Choice brand, has been involved in a long series of food and workplace safety controversies.

A Struggling Arch Coal Deserves Little Sympathy

Thursday, January 21st, 2016

archcoalArch Coal recently became the latest and largest coal producer to seek protection in Chapter 11. The company has also lost its listing on the New York Stock Exchange. Arch vows to go on operating but faces a very uncertain future.

It’s difficult to summon much sympathy for Arch or its struggling competitors. While its workers deserve a just transition to new livelihoods, Arch deserves to fade away. The main reason, of course, is the coal industry’s outsize contribution to the climate crisis, but a look at Arch’s track record shows a string of other major negative impacts.

Pollution. Arch’s first big environmental controversy occurred in 1996, when a massive mine waste spill at the operations of its Lone Mountain subsidiary in Virginia contaminated 30 miles of rivers and streams, killing thousands of fish. The company was hit with a $1.4 million state fine, one of the largest in Virginia’s history.

Arch also became a bigger target for environmental activists when it escalated its involvement in mountaintop-removal mining in Appalachia. It took advantage of the Bush Administration’s support for the controversial practice and resisted when the Obama Administration moved to tighten the rules. In 2010 an Arch subsidiary sued the Environmental Protection Agency over the planned revocation of a permit for a large mountaintop project in West Virginia that the agency decided would do irreversible damage to the environment. The EPA stood its ground, and when the revocation for the Spruce No.1 Mine was formally announced, Arch said it was “shocked and dismayed” and charged that the decision “will have a chilling effect on future U.S. investment.” Arch took the case all the way to the Supreme Court and was rebuffed at every stage.

In 2011 the EPA and the Justice department announced that Arch would pay $4 million to settle alleged violations of the Clean Water Act in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia. As part of the settlement, Arch was required to take steps to prevent an estimated two million pounds of pollution from entering waterways, including the implementation of a system to reduce selenium discharges. That same year, Arch paid $2 million to settle a lawsuit brought environmental groups over the selenium issue in West Virginia.

In 2015 Arch had to pay another $2 million to the federal government to settle similar alleged violations by 14 subsidiaries connected to its International Coal Group operations in five states.

Federal Leasing. Arch is one of a handful of companies taking advantage of a non-competitive program that allows coal operators to lease federal land at below-market rates. A 2012 report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis estimated that over 30 years the Treasury lost $28.9 billion in revenue from the failure to obtain fair market value for the coal extracted from the Powder River Basin of Wyoming and Montana, the country’s largest coal-producing region. A report released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in 2014 also found a pattern of undervaluing coal leases, as did a 2015 report by Headwater Economics estimating that two reform options would have generated additional revenue ranging from $850 million to $5.5 billion for the 2008-2012 period.

In 2014 the Western Organization of Resource Councils and Friends of the Earth filed a lawsuit asking that the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management be required to prepare a comprehensive environmental impact review of the federal leasing program. The last time such an assessment was done was in 1979. Arch’s Chapter 11 filing came just days before the Obama Administration announced the suspension of new federal coal leases.

Mine Safety. A 2003 inspection of Arch Coal’s Black Thunder mine in Wyoming by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration resulted in more than 50 violations. Two miners had been killed at the massive operation in the previous 12 months. In 2015 MSHA issued an imminent danger order at Black Thunder.

There have been other fatalities at Arch operations, including one at a Kentucky mine in 2013 that MSHA found had occurred after the company knew of a significant danger but failed to take proper precautions.

The most serious accident associated with Arch was the 2006 disaster at the Sago Mine run by a subsidiary of International Coal Group, which became part of Arch in 2011. Twelve miners died in a methane gas explosion at the West Virginia operation, which had been cited by MSHA for “combustible conditions” and “a high degree of negligence.” During 2005 the mine had received more than 200 violations, nearly half of which were serious and substantial. Investigations of the accident by the state and the company suggested that lightning had set off the explosion, whereas a United Mine Workers report concluded that sparks generated by falling rocks inside the mine were the cause.

According to the Violation Tracker database, Arch’s current operations have been fined a total of more than $6.4 million by MSHA since the beginning of 2010.

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Note: This post is drawn from my new Corporate Rap Sheet on Arch Coal, which can be found here.

Using Violation Tracker to Analyze Workplace Safety and Labor Relations

Thursday, November 5th, 2015

ViolationTracker_Logo_Development_R3It’s widely known that BP has a terrible workplace safety record, especially at its Texas City refinery, where 15 workers were killed in a 2005 explosion blamed in large part on management. In 2010 BP had to pay a record $50 million to settle OSHA allegations relating to the incident and the serious deficiencies in its subsequent remediation efforts.

Figuring out which other companies have created the greatest hazards for their workers has been more difficult — until now, that is. Violation Tracker, a new database on corporate misconduct, brings together information on some 100,000 environmental, health and safety cases filed by OSHA and a dozen other federal regulatory agencies since 2010. The database links the companies involved in the individual cases to their corporate parents, and the penalties are aggregated. Here I look at the largest OSHA violators identified by Violation Tracker and discuss a key characteristic they tend to have in common.

Companies with the most OSHA penalties, 2010-August 2015

  • BP: $63,860,860
  • Louis Dreyfus (parent of Imperial Sugar): $6,063,600
  • Republic Steel: $2,635,000
  • Tesoro: $2,532,355
  • Olivet Management: $2,359,000
  • Dollar Tree: $2,153,585
  • Ashley Furniture: $1,869,745
  • Kehrer Brothers Construction: $1,822,800
  • Renco: $1,535,475
  • Black Mag LLC: $1,218,500

(Source: Violation Tracker. Amounts are totals of “current penalties” for serious, willful or repeated violations of $5,000 or more after any negotiated reductions in OSHA’s initial proposed fines.)

Last February, members of the United Steelworkers union walked off the job at BP refineries in Ohio and Indiana as part of a strike focusing on safety problems in the industry. USW president Leo Girard stated at the time: “Management cannot continue to resist allowing workers a stronger voice on issues that could very well make the difference between life and death for too many of them.” BP’s $63 million in OSHA fines and settlements since 2010, far more than any other company, have put it at the forefront of that deadly resistance.

Tesoro, another unionized oil refiner criticized by the USW for its safety shortcomings, has the fourth highest OSHA penalty total ($2.5 million) among the companies in Violation Tracker. In 2014 the union called on the company to develop a “comprehensive, cohesive safety program” after an accident at a California refinery in which two workers were seriously injured. The USW also took the company to task for disputing a report by the U.S. Chemical Safety Board citing “safety culture deficiencies” among the causes of a 2010 explosion at a Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Washington that killed seven workers.

Kehrer Brothers Construction, on the top-ten list of OSHA violators with $1.8 million in penalties, is nominally a union contractor, but it was the subject of a 2010 lawsuit by the Roofers union complaining about wage theft. Earlier this year, OSHA accused the company of bringing in non-English speaking workers under H-2B visas and knowingly exposing them to asbestos on the job.

Not all of the largest OSHA violators are rogue unionized employers. Some are firms that have managed to keep unions out. Chief among those is Imperial Sugar, which in 2010 had to pay $6 million to settle more than 120 violations linked to a 2008 explosion at its non-union plant in Port Wentworth, Georgia that killed 14 people and seriously injured dozens of others. (Imperial, acquired by Louis Dreyfus in 2012, had unions at some of its other facilities.)

Dollar Tree, which has racked up more than $2 million in OSHA fines since 2010, is one of the large deep-discount retailers that target the portion of the population that cannot afford to shop at Walmart. The non-union chain has been cited repeatedly for piling boxes in storage areas of its stores to dangerous heights and blocking emergency exits.

Ashley Furniture was fined $1.8 million by OSHA earlier this year at its non-union plant in Arcadia, Wisconsin for 38 willful, serious or repeated violations stemming from the company’s failure to protect workers from moving equipment parts. One worker lost three fingers while operating a woodworking machine lacking required safety protections. OSHA recently proposed another $431,000 in fines for similar problems at another Ashley facility in Wisconsin.

A more obscure company in the OSHA top ten is Olivet Management, a real estate developer fined more than $2.3 million for exposing its own workers and contractor employees to asbestos and lead during clean-up activities at the site of the former Hudson Valley Psychiatric Center in Dover Plains, New York. The company was created by Olivet University, which calls itself “a private Christian institution of biblical higher education.”

There’s a smaller third category of top OSHA violators, represented by Republic Steel: a company with decent union relations that appears to have gotten sloppy in its safety practices. In 2014 Republic agreed to pay $2.4 million as part of a settlement with OSHA resolving violations at its facilities in Ohio and New York. The settlement, which also involved the creation of a comprehensive illness and injury prevention program, was praised by the USW. Yet this year Republic was fined another $162,400 for repeated and serious violations at its plant in Lorain, Ohio.

The lesson of all this seems to be that workers face the greatest hazards in non-union companies and rogue unionized firms, but they also need to be vigilant in workplaces with decent labor-management relations.

Note: This is the first in a series of posts using information from the new Violation Tracker database. For more on Violation Tracker, see the Huffington Post.

Unions Back from the Dead

Thursday, February 19th, 2015

refinerystrikersRight-wing governors in states such as Illinois and Wisconsin, corporate front men such as Rick Berman, and an unholy alliance of the American Legislative Exchange Council and the Heritage Foundation are among those seeking to nail shut the coffin of what they see as a dying labor movement. Yet recent events allow unions to channel Mark Twain and declare that the reports of their death have been greatly exaggerated.

As the Bureau of Labor Statistics announced that strikes last year sank to their second lowest level since 1947, workers at oil refineries around the country have been walking picket lines. A simmering labor dispute between shippers and members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union may result in a work stoppage at West Coast ports.

Discussions of wage stagnation, which all too often are devoid of references to declining union membership rates, are starting to acknowledge the importance of collective bargaining. Mainstream columnist Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times just published a piece headlined “The Cost Of a Decline In Unions” in which he cites research estimating that deunionization (which has brought membership levels below 7 percent in the private sector) may account for one-third of the rise of income inequality among men.

This comes after Kristof recites some of the obligatory criticisms (“corruption, nepotism and rigid work rules”), but he has seen the light in stating that “in recent years, the worst abuses by far haven’t been in the union shop but in the corporate suite.” He hedges a little bit at the end by saying “at least in the private sector, we should strengthen unions, not try to eviscerate them” but the column is remarkable nonetheless.

Also remarkable is the announcement by Wal-Mart Stores that it will raise the wages of all its U.S workers to at least $9 an hour. Wal-Mart, the country’s largest private sector employer, remains entirely non-union, but the move is an indication of the impact that labor groups such as Making Change at Walmart and OUR Walmart have had on the giant retailer. Their work is far from done; $9 an hour is still too low and there are many other reforms the company needs to make. But the fact that Wal-Mart, which has a notoriously intransigent history, has budged is a significant achievement.

The non-traditional organizing at Wal-Mart is just one example of alternative approaches to building worker power. Others include the minority union model being tested by the United Auto Workers at the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee and the worker center model employed by groups such as ROC United.

Yet traditional collective bargaining still has a role to play, and not only in raising pay levels. The oil refinery walkout, for example, is not about wages (which are good, thanks to Steelworker contracts), but instead involve issues such as workplace safety. In an industry with companies such as BP, with its abysmal refinery safety record, that is no small matter. In fact, it can be a matter of life and death.

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New in Corporate Rap Sheets: Dollar General, the king (for now) of deep discounters is facing pressure over the safety of its cheap merchandise.

Paying for Protection from Protests

Thursday, September 25th, 2014

grasberg_mine_11Responding to pressure from groups such as the International Corporate Accountability Roundtable, the Obama Administration has just announced that the United States will finally adopt a national action plan on combating global corruption, especially when it involves questionable foreign payments by transnational corporations that serve to undermine human rights. The White House statement notes that “the extractives industry is especially susceptible to corruption.”

True that. In fact, U.S.-based mining giant Freeport-McMoRan is an egregious case of a company that is reported to have made extensive payments to officials in the Indonesian military and national police who have responded harshly to popular protests over the environmental, labor and human rights practices of the company, which operates one of the world’s largest gold and copper mines at the Grasberg site (photo) in West Papua. There have been reports over the years that the U.S. Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission were investigating the company for violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, but no charges ever emerged.

Here is some background on the story: Freeport moved into Indonesia in 1967, only two years after Suharto’s military coup in which hundreds of thousands of opponents were killed. The company developed close ties with the regime and was able to structure its operations in a way that was unusually profitable. Benefits promised to local indigenous people never fully materialized, and the mining operation caused extensive downstream pollution in three rivers.

Until the mid-1990s these issues were not widely reported, but then Freeport’s practices started to attract more attention. In April 1995 the Australian Council for Overseas Aid issued a report describing the oppressive conditions faced by the Amungme people living near the mine. It also described a series of protests against Freeport that were met with a harsh response from the Indonesian military. A follow-up press release by the Council accused the army of killing unarmed civilians. An article in The Nation in the summer of 1995 provided additional details, including an allegation that Freeport was helping to pay the costs of the military force.

In November 1995, despite reported lobbying efforts on the part of Freeport director Henry Kissinger, the Clinton Administration took the unprecedented step of cancelling the company’s $100 million in insurance coverage through the Overseas Private Investment Corporation because of the damage its mining operation was doing to the tropical rain forest and rivers (the human rights issue was not mentioned).

The company responded with an aggressive public relations campaign in which it attacked its critics both in Indonesia and abroad. Freeport also negotiated a restoration of its OPIC insurance in exchange for a promise to create a trust fund to finance environmental initiatives at the Grasberg site. Within a few months, however, Freeport decided to give up its OPIC coverage and proceeded to increase its output, which meant higher levels of tailings and pollution.

The criticism of Freeport continued. It faced protests by students and faculty members at Loyola University in New Orleans (where the company’s headquarters were located at the time) who called attention both to the situation in Indonesia and to hazardous waste dumping into the Mississippi River by Freeport’s local phosphate processing plant. Another hotbed of protest was the University of Texas, the alma mater of Freeport’s chairman and CEO James (Jim Bob) Moffett and the recipient of substantial grants from the company and from Moffett personally, who had a building named after him in return.

After its ally Suharto resigned amid corruption charges in 1998, Freeport had to take a less combative position. The company brought in Gabrielle McDonald, the first African-American woman to serve as a U.S. District Court judge, as its special counsel on human rights and vowed to share more of the wealth from Grasberg with the people of West Papua. But little actually changed.

Freeport found itself at the center of a new controversy over worker safety. In October 2003 eight employees were killed in a massive landslide at Grasberg that an initial government investigation concluded was probably the result of management negligence. A few weeks later, the government reversed itself, attributing the landslide to a “natural occurrence” and allowing the company to resume normal operations.

In 2005 Global Witness published a report that elaborated on the accusations that Freeport was making direct payments to members of the Indonesian military, especially a general named Mahidin Simbolon. In an investigative report published on December 27, 2005, the New York Times said it had obtained evidence that Freeport had made payments totaling $20 million to members of the Indonesian military in the period from 1998 to 2004. (A 2011 estimate by Indonesia Corruption Watch put company payments to the national police at $79 million over the previous decade.)

Reports such as these raised concerns among some of Freeport’s institutional investors. The New York City Comptroller, who oversees the city’s public pension funds, charged that the company might have violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

Back in Indonesia, protests escalated. In 2006 the military responded to anti-Freeport student demonstrations by instituting what amounted to martial law in the city of Jayapura. Around the same time, the Indonesian government released the results of an investigation by independent experts concluding that the company was dumping nearly 700,000 tons of waste into waterways every day. In 2006 the Norwegian Ministry of Finance cited Freeport’s environmental record in Indonesia as the reason for excluding the company from its investment portfolio.

In 2007 workers at the Grasberg mine staged sit-down strikes to demand changes in management practices along with improved wages and benefits. More strikes occurred in 2011. Two years later, more than two dozen workers were killed in a tunnel collapse at Grasberg. Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights charged that the company could have prevented the conditions that caused the accident.

Freeport’s questionable labor, environmental and human rights practices continue, yet aside from that OPIC cancellation two decades ago it has faced little in the way of penalties. It remains to be seen whether the new Obama Administration policy changes this sorry state of affairs.

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

Ikea’s Double-Edged Living Wage Initiative

Thursday, June 26th, 2014

ikea2In an era of rising inequality, the announcement by Ikea that it will adopt a living wage policy for employees at its stores in the United States is good news for those who will enjoy a fuller paycheck. Yet the news is not as good as it could be.

Ikea’s move, like a similar action by Gap Inc. earlier this year, is a voluntary initiative, not a legislated or negotiated policy that can be enforced. Just as Ikea adopted the wage policy on its own, it could rescind or modify that policy in the future.

It’s significant that in its announcement Ikea noted that the new wage structure, which will raise the average hourly minimum to $10.76, does not apply to those working at its U.S. distribution centers and manufacturing facilities. That’s because, the company says, those facilities “have hourly wage jobs that are already paying minimum wages above the local living wage.”

What Ikea fails to mention is that some of those workers are represented by collective bargaining agreements that brought pay rates to their current levels. Also omitted is the fact that those unions were organized because of poor conditions, including inadequate wages.

For example, in 2010 the Machinists union (IAM) and the Building and Wood Workers International labor federation organized a campaign to pressure Ikea over dangerous working conditions and discriminatory employment practices, as well as pay and benefit issues, at the company’s Swedwood furniture plant in Danville, Virginia.

That campaign served as a springboard for a successful union organizing effort at the plant, where IAM members ratified their first contract with the company in December 2011. A month later, workers at the Ikea distribution center in Perryville, Maryland voted in favor of representation by the IAM. In May 2014 Teamster members  at an Ikea distribution facility in Washington State approved their initial contract.

It’s quite possible that Ikea’s new wage policy for its stores is an effort to undermine any union organizing at those outlets. For if there is one thing large companies hate more than paying higher wages, it is paying those higher wages and having to negotiate on other conditions of work.

The desire by management to retain control is the shortcoming of both voluntary wage increases and other initiatives undertaken under the rubric of corporate social responsibility. What proponents of CSR rarely acknowledge is that these supposedly enlightened corporate policies really amount to an effort to avoid stricter, enforceable regulations. Companies would prefer to congratulate themselves for deciding to cut greenhouse gas emissions or eliminate toxics rather than being compelled to take such actions under government mandate. A management-designed wage increase is more palatable than a union contract.

Corporate apologists would have us believe that CSR is preferable to tough regulations and collective bargaining, but what they fail to acknowledge is that major corporations have a long history of engaging in abusive practices.

In the case of Ikea, taking advantage of weak labor laws in the United States is far from the whole story. Two years ago, Ikea was forced to apologize after an investigation showed that it had benefitted from forced prison labor in East Germany in the 1980s. There were similar reports concerning Cuba. And now the company is facing allegations that during the same period it channeled funds to a firm run by the secret police in Romania.

Earlier, Ikea was embroiled in controversies over the use of child labor in countries such as Pakistan, India, Vietnam and the Philippines. One way the company sought to overcome that stigma was through philanthropic initiatives such as a partnership the Ikea Foundation created in 2013 with Save the Children and UNICEF to help children in Pakistan “find a route out of child labor.” Unaddressed, of course, was the issue of how companies such as Ikea got them into child labor in the first place through their use of exploitative contractors.

The same issue applies to the wages of Ikea’s U.S. store employees. There would be no need for a living wage initiative if the company had not been paying too little to begin with. That’s the problem with much of CSR and voluntary corporate reforms: they are all too often initiatives designed to address problems that companies created themselves and are structured in a way that does not prevent them from reverting to those bad practices again in the future.

Will Obama Help Contractor Employees Join a Union?

Thursday, June 19th, 2014

vail-good-jobs-nationAfter the passage of the Wagner Act in 1935, labor activists organized workers with the slogan: “The President wants you to join a union.” We haven’t seen much encouragement of collective bargaining from the White House during the past 75 years, but there is a move afoot to change that, at least with respect to employees of companies working for the federal government.

The Good Jobs Nation campaign, which has been highlighting the plight of low-paid employees of federal contractors and helped prod President Obama to issue an executive order that will boost the pay of those workers to $10.10, is raising the ante. It is now calling for another executive order that would pressure contractors to bargain with workers in exchange for a commitment not to strike.

While there would certainly be legal challenges to such an order, it is the logical next step in the effort to address poor working conditions among portions of the federal contractor workforce and to use those standards to promote better standards for the entire U.S. working population.

It’s already well documented that many contractors flout federal workplace regulations. A report issued last year by the majority staff of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee showed that contractors were among the worst violators in areas such as wage and hour standards and occupational safety and health. A federally mandated wage increase will certainly help, but it is only through collective bargaining that contractor employees will get all the protections they need.

Good Jobs Nation is focusing on workers in fields such as foodservice and security, but how much unionization is missing from the overall contractor workforce? To begin to answer this question, I looked at what the largest contractors are saying (or not saying) about unions in their filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

I started with the list of 50 largest contractors in FY2014 shown on the USA Spending website. Excluding those that are privately held, foreign-owned or non-profit, I looked at each firm’s 10-K annual report, which is required to report the total number of employees and has traditionally been the place where companies indicate the extent to which those workers are covered by collective bargaining agreements. Since the main goal of the 10-K is to inform investors of potential risks that could affect the value of their holdings, the company is supposed to indicate whether a work stoppage is possible.

Back in the day when unions were stronger, most large companies had something to report on labor relations. These days many companies indicate that they are not a party to any collective bargaining agreements or don’t bother to say anything on the subject.

Numerous 10-Ks of the top contractors fall into this category. Healthcare companies such as McKesson (the 5th largest contractor), Humana (8th) and UnitedHealth (20st) say nothing about unions. Other firms such as Health Net (11th), telecom equipment maker Harris Corp. (33rd) and Orbital Sciences Corporation (43rd) proudly announced that their U.S. workforce is union-free.

The companies with the biggest union presence are leading Pentagon contractors. Shipbuilder Huntington Ingalls (9th) reports the highest figure I found: 50 percent. Boeing (2nd) reports 37 percent while General Dynamics (4th) and L-3 Communications (10th) each give a figure of 20 percent. The largest contractor of them all, Lockheed Martin, says its unionization level is 15 percent.

On the other hand, some of the aerospace contractors are only lightly unionized: the figure for Raytheon (3rd) is 8 percent and for Northrop Grumman (19th) only 5 percent. Once a heavily unionized firm, General Electric (22nd) says only 7 percent of its total workforce has collective bargaining, even though it has shifted more than half of that workforce overseas, where unions remain stronger.

In other words, not a single one of the companies profiting most from the bloated military budget has a workforce that is majority union, and some have kept the union presence to a bare minimum.

Unions are even more scarce among the large information technology firms that account for another substantial portion of federal contractor spending. Among the firms that don’t mention any union presence are: SAIC, Computer Sciences Corporation, Hewlett Packard, CACI International and IBM.

Employees at these firms are certainly better paid than those employed by contractors performing functions such as building maintenance, but the absence of unions among better treated workers makes it harder for everyone to organize.

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.