Archive for the ‘Unions’ Category

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.


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.


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.

Comcast’s Other Sins

Thursday, April 10th, 2014

comcast centerComcast’s audacious proposal to acquire Time Warner Cable and thereby become a cable behemoth has been met with an appropriate degree of skepticism.

Both Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee grilled a company executive at a hearing on the $45 billion acquisition.

There are good reasons to worry about the impact the merger would have on customers in an industry that already imposes inflated prices for what is often substandard service. As consumer advocate Gene Kimmelman put it in his prepared testimony for the hearing:

The merger will even more firmly entrench Comcast as the gatekeeper at the crossroads of Internet, television, and communications innovation. Because the merged company will have both the incentive and ability to thwart development of innovative Internet services that threaten Comcast’s excessively priced offerings across a much broader swath of the market than is true today, this merger must be rejected.

The impact on consumers is not the only cause for concern. The merger would give considerably more power to a company that has a long history of using its clout to mistreat workers and fight unions. Comcast has been forced to moderate its labor practices somewhat, but there is no evidence that it has changed its fundamental stance.

It’s significant that Comcast’s worst union-busting behavior emerged after its last giant cable acquisition — the purchase of AT&T Broadband in 2001. As Jonathan Tasini, then head of American Rights at Work, put it in an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times:

Comcast promised to abide by union contracts and bargain in good faith. Instead, it embarked on a carefully orchestrated campaign to destroy the unions. In Detroit, Comcast chopped off more than half the unionized workforce, moving dozens of jobs to a nonunion facility. During organizing drives, Comcast has shelled out large sums to high-priced union-busting law firms and has harshly disciplined union supporters — firing some outright. Numerous charges have been filed against Comcast before the National Labor Relations Board.

This track record prompted the Communications Workers of America to oppose Comcast’s 2004 (ultimately unsuccessful) effort to take over Walt Disney. In a press release the CWA wrote: “Comcast has earned a designation by the AFL-CIO as one of the most aggressively anti-union companies in America, for its intimidation and threats against workers who want union representation. A Comcast vice president in Beaverton, Ore., stated publicly that Comcast is ‘at war to decertify the CWA’ and the company has followed that strategy since it bought AT&T Broadband in 2002.”

That strategy led to decertification votes in more than a dozen cities. An April 2004 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer reported that the unionized portion of Comcast’s workforce had fallen to less than five percent. The paper quoted CWA official George Kohl as saying: “We believe Comcast is out to crush unions. It has to do with control and paternalism run amok.”

Also in 2004, American Rights at Work (which later merged with Jobs with Justice) published a report entitled No Bargain: Comcast and the Future of Workers’ Rights in Telecommunications. After documenting how Comcast abused workers and fought unions, the report called on the company to change its ways.

Under pressure from CWA, Comcast apparently did change a bit. The union was able to negotiate decent contracts in places such as Pittsburgh and Detroit. Nonetheless, the union was critical of Comcast’s 2010 move to take over NBC Universal. So far, the CWA has taken a cautious public stance on the Time Warner Cable deal, saying it should be scrutinized but not explicitly opposing or endorsing it.

As an outsider, I am not familiar with the details of Comcast’s current dealings with the CWA or its other major union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Yet the company’s history on labor relations, especially in light of what happened after the AT&T Broadband acquisition, makes me worry about how it would behave after gaining control over an even larger portion of the cable industry.

It is telling that the Comcast official who represented the company in the recent Judiciary Committee hearing, Executive Vice President David L. Cohen, is the same person who led the anti-union campaign a decade ago. ”We take pride in providing a safe, enjoyable and productive work environment,” Cohen told the New York Times in 2005, adding that workers ”do not need to be represented by a union to gain all of the advantages.” Earlier, Cohen was quoted as dismissing critics of the company as “a few disgruntled employees that the union trots out.”

Many companies use the section on employees in their 10-K filings with the SEC to proclaim that they have good relations with their workers. Comcast does not bother to even address the issue in its 10-K. I suspect that Comcast is still at heart a unionbuster and worry that after swallowing Time Warner Cable it would feel freer to let that impulse come to the fore once again.

Conservatives Discover the Wisdom of Workers

Thursday, February 20th, 2014

vw-westmorelandThe United Auto Workers defeat in the Volkswagen representation election has conservatives gloating, even though their victory came only after they abandoned many of their core principles in favor of political expediency. Elected officials who typically denounce government interference in the market used their pulpits to meddle in a private business matter. Editorialists at the Wall Street Journal, who normally sing the praises of large corporations, declared that the vote showed that “workers are smarter than management.”

Such bogus industrial populism is easy to bandy about when the workers in question were pressured into voting against their own best interests. Typically, it is management and anti-union consultants who are responsible for defeating an organizing drive. In Tennessee, the company remained neutral and the intimidation campaign was carried out by politicians and out-of-state conservative ideologues. Leading the assault was U.S. Sen. Bob Corker, who brazenly promoted the apparent lie that a vote for the union would mean that a new VW assembly line for SUVs would be sited in Mexico instead of Chattanooga.

The Journal admitted that Corker may have been “impolitic” but it defended his “right to free speech.” State politicians also did damage, raising the prospect that VW, which got a $554 million subsidy package when it opened the plant, should not expect future financial assistance if the workers dared to choose the union.

The enthusiasm for the wisdom of the rank and file on the part of the Journal stands in stark contrast to its reaction when workers at VW’s original U.S. plant in Westmoreland, Pennsylvania asserted themselves. Frustrated at the low pay rates they were receiving in comparison to their counterparts at the Big Three plants in Detroit, the unionized VW workers staged a wildcat strike in 1978. Stopping production of VW’s Rabbit, the workers rallied under the slogan “No Money, No Bunny.”

A front-page story in the Journal about the strike (10/13/1978) included the following subheadline: “Pennsylvania Walkout Stirs Doubts on Cost, Stability of American Work Force.” The article quoted a Nissan official as saying: “The Volkswagen strike is quite upsetting to us.”

It was also quite upsetting to VW. Even after the walkout ended, labor-management relations remained hostile at the plant. VW, which was also confronted with a lawsuit charging that it discriminated against black employees, shut down the operation in 1988.

It is likely that VW managers had that experience in mind when they decided not to fight the UAW. Southern U.S. conservatives, like other pro-business types, push the notion that American workers need to accept the realities of a globalized market. What those conservatives refuse to recognize is that one of those realities, at least as far as VW is concerned, is an acceptance of unions and a cooperative approach to labor relations through works councils of the kind that the company wants to adopt in Tennessee. In fact, VW, like other German companies, has a supervisory board with labor representatives.

The latest irony in this situation is that Bernd Osterloh, a labor member of VW’s supervisory board and the head of its works council in Germany, reacted to the election results in Tennessee by saying he might block any future investments by VW in the Southern United States because of the hostility to unions. That would demolish the pernicious conventional wisdom that disempowered workers are always an essential ingredient for economic growth.

Osterloh’s statement helps to bring into focus the truth about the progressive deunionization of U.S. business. Rather than being part of an alignment with the realities of globalization, it is making the United States more of an outlier compared to other wealthy nations. Like this country’s refusal to accept the kind of single payer health insurance that is the norm in the developed world, the ongoing attack on unions puts us out of step with the way a modern economy is supposed to operate and reinforces the dangerous growth of economic inequality.

Worker Freedom in Tennessee

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

vw_uaw2Major employers facing a union organizing drive, particularly in the South, have long relied on small-business owners, elected officials and other conservative voices to mount a counter-attack.

An interesting variation on this theme is taking place in Tennessee, where Volkswagen seems to be welcoming a United Auto Workers organizing effort at its plant in Chattanooga, yet local as well as national anti-union ideologues are on the warpath nonetheless. They are frantically trying to persuade VW workers to reject the union in a secret-ballot vote scheduled later this month. The company reportedly decided not to simply recognize the UAW, which has gotten a majority of the workers to sign membership cards, because of intense pressure from figures such as Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, who gained notoriety for opposing the federal rescue of the auto industry.

(Full disclosure: I am a member of the United Auto Workers via the National Writers Union/UAW Local 1981.)

VW has rejected the usual practice of foreign automakers, which despite any cooperative relationships with unions at home, have embraced American-style anti-union animus in their U.S. transplants. For many years, the UAW has sought to overcome this intransigence, as seen most recently in the ongoing effort to organize the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi.

VW wants to import the works council system of labor-management relations it has in Germany, but in the absence of a certified collective bargaining representative, that would amount to an illegal company-dominated union under U.S. labor law.

We thus end up with a situation in which a major corporation wanting to employ a set of practices designed to improve productivity and reduce turnover is being vilified by those who regard union avoidance as one of the grand traditions of the South.

Last month, Stephen Moore, who was recently named chief economist of the Heritage Foundation, told a business meeting in Chattanooga that the union effort at VW is “like inserting a cancer cell into a body. That one cancer cell is going to multiply and kill the body.” Anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist is helping to bankroll the opposition, apparently out of a concern that a union advance in Tennessee would impede his fiscal agenda. The National Right to Work Foundation and the Center for Worker Freedom are also involved, though their efforts fell flat when the National Labor Relations Board concluded that neither the UAW nor VW had violated labor law in any way.

Figures such as Moore and Norquist came into prominence as a result of a conservative backlash that big business set into motion three decades ago in response to advances of the labor, environmental and consumer movements. That Frankenstein monster took on a life of its own, and now rightwing groups pursue purist goals even when they conflict with corporate pragmatism — as seen, for example in the tea party push for a government shutdown over the objection of major companies.

These groups operate on the assumption that Americans are inherently conservative and that organizations such as the UAW will lead them astray. Foreign automakers such as Nissan and Toyota have gone along with this notion.

VW seems to have a different view, but for reasons that are generally not acknowledged. It tends to be forgotten that VW was the first foreign automaker to establish an assembly plant in the United States, back in 1978 in Pennsylvania.

After being welcomed by public officials with a subsidy package worth about $100 million — an astounding sum at the time — Volkswagen found that many of the people it hired were unhappy about being paid less than their counterparts at the  Big Three plants. A wildcat strike ensued, catching even the UAW off guard. Stopping production of VW’s Rabbit, the workers chanted “No Money, No Bunny.” The plant, which never recovered from the worker unrest, shut down in 1988.

As opposed to the rightwing caricature of unions as the shock troops for a socialist takeover, VW regards the UAW as a partner that can help ensure the smooth functioning of the plant. If that’s done by giving workers more control over their working life, so much the better.

After years of being at the totally at the mercy of management, Southern autoworkers finally have a chance to play a greater role in controlling their destiny. That’s real worker freedom.

The 2013 Corporate Rap Sheet

Thursday, December 19th, 2013

Monopoly_Go_Directly_To_Jail-T-linkThe ongoing corporate crime wave showed no signs of abating in 2013. Large companies continued to break the law, violate regulations and otherwise misbehave at a high rate. Whatever lip service the business world gives to corporate social responsibility tends to be overwhelmed by bad acts.

Continuing the trend of recent years, 2013 saw an escalation of the amounts that companies have to pay, especially in the United States, to get themselves out of their legal entanglements. In November JPMorgan Chase set a record with its $13 billion settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice and other state and local agencies on charges relating to the sale of toxic mortgage-backed securities. JPMorgan’s legal problems are not over. There have recently been reports that it may face criminal charges and pay $2 billion in penalties in connection with charges that it turned a blind eye to the Ponzi scheme being run by Bernard Madoff while it was serving as his primary bank.

Other banks have also been shelling out large sums to resolve disputes over the sale of toxic securities in the run-up to the financial crisis. Much of the money has gone to settlements with mortgage agencies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Bank of America alone agreed to pay out $10.3 billion ($3.6 billion in cash and $6.75 billion in mortgage repurchases) to Fannie.

Here are some of the year’s other highlights (or lowlights):

FORECLOSURE ABUSES. In January, ten mortgage servicing companies–including Bank of America, Citibank and JPMorgan Chase–agreed to an $8.5 billion settlement to resolve allegations by federal regulators relating to foreclosure abuses.

LIBOR MANIPULATION. In February, U.S. and UK regulators announced that the Royal Bank of Scotland would pay a total of $612 million to resolve allegations relating to rigging of the LIBOR interest rate index. In December, the European Union fined RBS and five other banks a total of $2.3 billion in connection with LIBOR manipulation.

ILLEGAL MARKETING. In November, the Justice Department announced that Johnson & Johnson would pay more than $2.2 billion to settle criminal and civil allegations that it improperly marketed the anti-psychotic drug Risperdal for unapproved use by older adults, children and people with development disabilities.

SALE OF DEFECTIVE MEDICAL IMPLANTS. Also in November, Johnson & Johnson agreed to pay more than $2 billion to settle thousands of lawsuits charging that the company sold defective hip implants, causing many individuals to suffer severe pain and injury from metallic debris generated by the faulty devices.

INSIDER TRADING. In March, the SEC announced that an affiliate of hedge fund giant SAC Capital Advisors had agreed to pay $602 million to settle SEC charges that it participated in an insider trading scheme involving a clinical trial for an Alzheimer’s drug being jointly developed by two pharmaceutical companies. At the same time, a second SAC affiliate agreed to pay $14 million to settle another insider trading case. Later, SAC agreed to pay $1.2 billion to settle related criminal and civil insider trading charges.

PRICE-FIXING. In July, German officials fined steelmaker ThyssenKrupp the equivalent of about $115 million for its role in a price-fixing cartel. In September, the U.S. Justice Department announced that nine Japanese automotive suppliers had agreed to plead guilty to price-fixing conspiracy charges and pay more than $740 million in criminal fines, with the largest amount ($195 million) to be paid by Hitachi Automotive Systems.

MANIPULATION OF ENERGY PRICES. In July, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ordered Barclays and four of its traders to pay $453 million in civil penalties for manipulating electricity prices in California and other western U.S. markets during a two-year period beginning in late 2006.

BRIBERY. In May, the Justice Department announced that the French oil company Total had agreed to pay $398 million to settle charges that it violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by paying bribes to officials in Iran.

VIOLATION OF DRUG SAFETY RULES. In May, DOJ announced that generic drug maker Ranbaxy USA Inc., a subsidiary of the Indian company Ranbaxy Laboratories, had pleaded guilty to felony charges relating to the manufacture and distribution of adulterated drugs and would pay $500 million in fines.

VIOLATION OF RULES ON THE SALE OF NARCOTICS. In June, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration announced that the giant Walgreen pharmacy chain would pay a record $80 million in civil penalties to resolve charges that it failed to properly control the sales of narcotic painkillers at some of its stores.

DEALINGS WITH ENTITIES SUBJECT TO SANCTIONS. In June, New York officials announced that Bank of Tokyo Mitsubishi-UFJ had agreed to pay $250 million to settle allegations that it violated state banking laws by engaging in transactions with entities from countries such as Iran subject to sanctions.

LABOR LAW VIOLATIONS. In November, the National Labor Relations Board found that Wal-Mart had illegally disciplined and fired workers involved in protests over the company’s labor practices. A Wal-Mart spokesperson was found to have unlawfully threatened employees who were considering taking part in the actions.

CLEAN WATER ACT VIOLATIONS. In May, the Environmental Protection Agency announced that Wal-Mart had pleaded guilty to charges that it illegally disposed of hazardous materials at its stores across the country. The company had to pay $81.6 million in civil and criminal fines.

HEALTH AND SAFETY CODE VIOLATIONS. In August, Chevron pleaded no contest and agreed to pay $2 million to settle charges that it violated state health and safety regulations in connection with a fire at its refinery in Richmond, California that sent thousands of people to hospital for treatment of respiratory problems.

DELAYS IN RECALLING UNSAFE VEHICLES. In August, Ford Motor was fined $17.4 million by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for taking too long to recall unsafe sport utility vehicles.

PRIVACY VIOLATIONS. In November, Google agreed to pay $17 million to 37 states and the District of Columbia to settle allegations that the company violated privacy laws by tracking online activity of individuals without their knowledge.

Note: For fuller dossiers on many of the companies listed here, see my Corporate Rap Sheets.