Archive for the ‘Workplace Safety & Health’ Category

Deregulation Crashes and Burns

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

Canada’s Transportation Safety Board is far from reaching a conclusion on what caused an unattended train with 72 tanker cars filled with crude oil to roll downhill and crash into the Quebec town of Lac-Megantic, setting off a huge explosion that killed at least 15 people. But that hasn’t stopped Edward Burkhardt, the chief executive of the railroad, from pointing the finger at everyone in sight — except himself.

Burkhardt first tried to blame local firefighters who had extinguished a small blaze in the train before the larger accident, and now he is accusing his own employee — the person who was operating the train all by himself — for failing to apply all the hand brakes when he parked the train for the night and went to a hotel for some rest after his 12-hour shift.

Whatever were the immediate causes of the accident, Burkhardt and his company — Montreal, Maine & Atlantic (MMA) Railway and its parent Rail World Inc. — bear much of the responsibility.

Burkhardt is a living symbol of the pitfalls of deregulation, deunionization, privatization and the other features of laissez-faire capitalism. He first made his mark in the late 1980s, when his Wisconsin Central Railroad took advantage of federal railroad deregulation, via the 1980 Staggers Rail Act, to purchase 2,700 miles of track from the Soo Line and remake it into a supposedly dynamic and efficient carrier. That efficiency came largely from operating non-union and thus eliminating work rules that had promoted safety.

Wisconsin Central — which also took advantage of privatization to acquire rail operations in countries such as Britain, Australia and New Zealand — racked up a questionable safety record. Burkhardt was forced out of Wisconsin Central in a boardroom dispute in 2001, but he continued his risky practices after his new company, Rail World, took over the Bangor and Aroostook line in 2003 and renamed it MMA.

Faced with operating losses, Burkhardt and his colleague Robert Grindrod targeted labor costs with little concern about the safety consequences. In 2010 the Bangor Daily News reported that MMA was planning to reduce its crews to one person in Maine, which, amazingly, was allowed by state officials. Grindrod blithely told the newspaper: “Obviously, if you are running two men on a crew and switch to one man, you’re saving 50 percent of your labor component.” The company also succeeded in getting permission for one-man crews in Canada.

Inadequate staffing may have also played a role in a 2009 incident at an MMA maintenance facility in Maine in which more than 100,000 gallons of oil were spilled during a transfer in the facility’s boiler room. In 2011 the EPA fined the company $30,000 for Clean Water Act violations.

MMA continued to have safety problems even before the Lac-Megantic disaster. The Wall Street Journal reported that MMA had 23 accidents, injuries or other reportable mishaps from 2010 to 2012 and that on a per-mile basis the company’s rate was much higher than the U.S. national average.

The Lac-Megantic accident is prompting calls in Canada for a reconsideration of the policy of allowing a high degree of self-regulation on the part of the railroads. A review of lax regulation, including the elimination of work rules, should also occur in the United States. There’s also a scandal in the fact that railroads like MMA are still allowed to use outdated and unsafe tanker cars.

Yet some observers are seeking to exploit the deaths in Quebec by making the bizarre argument that the real lesson of the accident is the need to rely more on pipelines rather than railroads to carry the crude oil gushing out of the North Dakota Bakken fields (the content of the MMA tankers) and the tar sands of Canada. North Dakota Senator John Hoeven, for instance, is using the incident to argue the need for the controversial XL Pipeline.

How quickly these people forget that the safety record of pipelines is far from unblemished. Hoeven’s neighbors in Montana are still recovering from the 2011 rupture of an Exxon Mobil pipeline that spilled some 40,000 gallons of crude oil into the Yellowstone River.

The problem is not the particular delivery system by which hazardous substances are transported but the fact that too many of those systems are under the control of executives such as Burkhardt who put their profits before the safety of the public.

Wal-Mart and Disney: Two Varieties of Corporate Irresponsibility

Thursday, May 16th, 2013

toysfromhellIt’s difficult to decide which company is acting in the more irresponsible fashion in the wake of the terrible Rana Plaza industrial accident in Bangladesh: Wal-Mart, which continues to source goods from the country but refuses to join a group of other companies in signing a binding agreement to improve factory conditions; or Disney, which simply decided to end its use of suppliers in Bangladesh and several other countries.

Both companies have a dismal record when it comes to sourcing from poor countries. Wal-Mart has been embroiled in controversies regarding labor practices by its foreign suppliers since at least 1992, when media outlets such as NBC’s Dateline reported that some of the company’s Asian suppliers were making use of illegal child labor.

In 2005 the International Labor Rights Fund filed suit against Wal-Mart in federal court in Los Angeles, charging that employees of the company’s suppliers in China, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Swaziland and Nicaragua were forced to work overtime without pay and in some cases were fired for supporting union organizing efforts. Unfortunately, the case was thrown out on legal technicalities.

After a November 2012 fire at a Bangladeshi garment factory supplying Wal-Mart and other Western companies killed more than 100 workers, the Wall Street Journal found that the factory managed to continue working for Wal-Mart despite third-part inspections that had raised concerns about fire safety.

Disney has been targeted over conditions in its foreign supplier factories since 1996, when a report published by the National Labor Committee (now the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights) alleged that clothing contractors in Haiti producing “Mickey Mouse” and “Pocahontas” pajamas for U.S. companies under license with Disney were in some cases paying as little as 12 cents an hour, below the minimum wage in that country.

In a follow-up report, the group found that the contractors had raised wages to the legal minimum of about 28 cents an hour but said this still left workers living “on the edge of misery,” especially since they were often short-changed by employers.

Over the following two decades, groups such as China Labor Watch and Hong Kong-based Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misconduct (SACOM) have produced a steady stream of reports documenting abuses in Disney supplier factories, especially in China, concerning wages, working conditions and safety. The company has generally brushed off the criticism, saying it could not possibly monitor all of the facilities. It even refused to release a list of its supplier factories.

It thus comes as no surprise that neither Disney nor Wal-Mart is playing a constructive role in helping prevent a repetition of disasters like Rana Plaza. In the case of Wal-Mart, it is likely that the key reasons for its refusal to join with companies such as H&M and Carrefour are that the agreement they signed is legally binding and that international labor federations such as IndustriALL and UNI were involved in making the accord happen. Bangladeshi unions are also signatories to the agreement.

Wal-Mart, of course, is notorious for its aversion to any form of cooperation with unions (except the subservient ones in China). In its dealings with community groups and other non-profits, the company is equally infamous for avoiding binding agreements—preferring to give itself the ability to wiggle out of any commitments it may pretend to make. The National Retail Federation, which shares Wal-Mart’s attitude toward unions, defiantly rejected the accord, while The Gap justified its refusal to sign by warning of the possibility of lawsuits. In other words, like Wal-Mart, it apparently wants an agreement that will do little more than burnish its corporate image.

Disney is acting as if it can simply wash its hands of the problems in Bangladesh by cutting off its suppliers in that country. That does nothing to help the workers who had grown dependent on the jobs its licensees had created, as bad as they were. Liana Foxvog of Sweatfree Communities and Judy Gearhart of the International Labor Rights Forum got it right when they published a column on the New York Times website calling the move “shameful.”

The accord is an important step forward in addressing both the immediate problem of industrial safety in Bangladesh and in starting to make large corporations truly responsible for ameliorating the brutal working conditions they all too often help create in countries with large numbers of desperate workers.

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

The Other Form of Violence

Thursday, April 18th, 2013

west-texas-fertilizer-plant-explosion-2Newscasts these days often seem to be less a form of journalism than a kind of bizarre game show for paranoids: what horrible possibility should one worry about the most?

Most of the time, the main choice is between terrorism and gun violence, especially in recent days as the Boston Marathon bombings have shared the airwaves with the gun control debate in the Senate.

Now the horrific events in a small town in Texas provide a reminder of another danger, which for most of the population is actually a more significant threat: industrial accidents. As of this writing, the explosion at a fertilizer plant near Waco is reported to have killed up to 15 people and injured more than 180 others.

If the past is any guide, the attention paid to this incident on a national level will fade much faster than the anxiety about the carnage in Boston or the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut. The response of most people to terrorism and to gun deaths is to demand that government do something to curb the violence. When people die or are seriously injured in workplace incidents, there is a tendency not to see that as violence at all but rather as an unfortunate side effect of doing certain kinds of business. While labor unions and other advocates push for stronger enforcement of safety laws, corporations and their front groups usually succeed in keeping such regulation as weak as possible.

The truth is that corporations often show a brazen disregard for the safety of their employees—and nearby residents. Probably the biggest workplace assailant in recent years has been BP, which even before the 2010 explosion at its oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico that killed 11 workers had been cited for atrocious safety violations at its refinery in Texas City, Texas, where 15 workers were killed and about 180 injured in a 2005 explosion.

BP initially agreed to pay a then-record $21.4 million in fines for nearly 300 “egregious” violations at the refinery, but in 2009 OSHA announced that the company was not living up to its obligations under the settlement and proposed an even larger fine–$87.4 million–against the company for allowing unsafe conditions to persist. BP challenged the fine and later agreed to pay $50.6 million. Apparently deciding it could not run the refinery safely, BP announced in 2012 that it was selling the facility.

In the list of the all-time largest fines in OSHA’s history, BP is at the top of the list. It’s interesting that the next largest fine involved another fertilizer company—IMC Fertilizer, which along with Angus Chemical was initially fined $11.6 million (negotiated down to about $10 million) for violations linked to a 1991 explosion at a plant in Louisiana in which eight workers were killed and 120 injured.

The new incident at the fertilizer plant in Texas shows that risky business behavior is not limited to corporate giants. While many press accounts refer to the plant as West Fertilizer Co., the corporate entity is actually Adair Grain Inc., which according to Dun & Bradstreet has only eight employees and annual revenues of only a few million dollars.

Although the facility’s listing in the EPA’s ECHO enforcement database shows no violations and no inspections during the past five years (the period covered by ECHO), there have been press reports of an earlier citation for failing to have a risk management plan. The facility did not get an air pollution permit until 2007, after there were complaints about foul odors from the site. Last year, the company was fined all of $10,100 by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration for violations in the transportation of anhydrous ammonia. There is no indication in the OSHA database that the facility has ever been inspected.

It’s the same old story: a dangerous industrial facility with limited regulatory oversight finally creates death and destruction.

Footnote: Until the accident, the only time Adair Grain rose out of obscurity was in 2007, when under the name of its affiliate Texas Grain Storage it filed a federal lawsuit against Monsanto, charging it with anticompetitive practices in its sale of Roundup herbicides (U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas civil case SA-07-CA-673-OG). The case, which was brought with the involvement of ten mostly out-of-state law firms and sought class action status, appears to be dormant.

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The latest addition to CORPORATE RAP SHEETS is dossier on agribusiness giant Cargill, whose record includes some of the largest meat recalls in U.S. history and repeated workplace safety violations, including several at fertilizer plants it used to own. Read the Rap Sheet here.

The Risks of Being Employed

Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

For those out of work for an extended period, unemployment can feel like a slow death.

Perhaps the only thing worse is the rapid death or serious injury experienced by many of those who have jobs but are forced to toil in unsafe conditions. As the ongoing economic crisis makes it difficult for workers to resist speed-ups and the hazards that go along with them, workplace accidents continue to mount. More than a dozen people are killed on the job each day.

New evidence of employer abuse comes in the latest statistics for the Occupational Safety and Health Administrations’ Severe Violator Enforcement Program (SVEP). According to the August 1 issue of Bloomberg BNA’s Labor Relations Week, the number of workplaces that have egregiously bad safety records has doubled in the past year, reaching 330 establishments.

OSHA created the SVEP in 2010 in an effort to focus attention on those employers that expose their workers to the most dangerous conditions, as indicated by the occurrence of serious accidents and citations for significant violations of safety and health standards.  This is a laudable initiative, but it is likely that OSHA’s list includes only a small fraction of the corporate malefactors.

One of the companies missing from the compilation is BP, with which OSHA recently reached a $13 million settlement relating to the remaining unresolved violations at the company’s notorious Texas City refinery. BP previously paid more than $70 million in connection with hundreds of violations at the facility, where 15 workers were killed and more than 170 injured in a 2005 explosion (photo).

BP’s payments are far from the norm. In fact, the 2012 edition of the AFL-CIO’s overview of safety and health practices concludes that typical penalties—which after a recent increase still average only $2,100 for serious violations cited by OSHA and only $942 for those brought by state agencies—are too low to serve as a real deterrent to employer negligence.

Most of the firms on the SVEP list are smaller companies, with the largest number in the construction sector.  One larger corporation is Cooper Tire & Rubber. In November 2010 Cooper was cited by OSHA for 10 violations for failing to provide adequate protection from hazardous chemicals at its plant in Findlay, Ohio. The following June, Cooper was cited for similar violations at its plant in Tupelo, Mississippi.

Failure to provide a safe work environment is not the only way that Cooper mistreats its workers. The tire maker is also among the large employers that have used the recession as a pretext for taking a hard line on collective bargaining. Last November, Cooper locked out workers in Findlay represented by the Steelworkers union after they rejected a contract offer from the profitable firm that eliminated wage guarantees and increased healthcare premiums. Back in 2008, when Cooper was losing money, the union agreed to $30 million in concessions that helped it survive. The lockout ended in February after workers approved a somewhat less onerous offer.

Cooper’s strategy is similar to that being employed by Caterpillar, which despite enjoying record profits, is seeking deep concessions from its union workers. In May more than 750 workers at Cat’s plant in Joliet, Illinois, took what is a rare step these days—they went on strike. They were willing to take the risk in the face of a company proposal to freeze wages for six years for workers with more seniority and to set wage rates for newer employees according to labor market conditions rather than collective bargaining. There appears to be no end in sight for the walkout.

Long-term unemployment can take a terrible toll on families, but many of those with jobs go to work each day facing risks to their life or their livelihood. The recession, intensified by corporate disregard for workplace safety and labor laws, weighs heavy on all of the 99%.

Through A Corporate Glass, Darkly

Thursday, July 19th, 2012

Conventional wisdom has it that we live in an age of hyper-transparency. That’s true if you look at what people are willing to reveal about themselves to Facebook, but it’s another story for large corporations and the 1%.

The Republican filibuster of the DISCLOSE Act and Mitt Romney’s reluctance to release more of his income tax returns are strong reminders of how those at the top of the economic pyramid seek to hide the ways they accumulate their wealth and influence public policy.

The current preoccupation with disclosure issues makes this a good time to step back and review the state of corporate transparency. Do we know enough about the workings of the huge private institutions that dominate so much of modern life?

Of course, the answer is no. Yet the quantity and quality of disclosure vary greatly depending on the structure of a given company and the aspect of its operations one chooses to examine. Depending on which piece of the business elephant we touch, corporations may seen somewhat translucent or completely opaque.

It’s also worth remembering that there are two main forms of disclosure: information that companies, especially those whose stock is publicly traded, are compelled to reveal and the data that government agencies collect about firms and release to the public. What corporations release on their own initiative is, given its selective nature, self-serving spin rather than disclosure.

Most of what U.S. companies are required to disclose is contained in the financial filings required by the Securities and Exchange Commission. It’s great that the SEC makes these documents readily available via its EDGAR online system, but the information required from companies is meant to serve the needs of investors rather than those of us concerned with corporate accountability. There is thus an abundance of data on financial results and a meager amount on a company’s social impacts. Here’s a rundown and critique of disclosure practices regarding the latter.

LEGAL PROCEEDINGS. Each company filing a 10-K annual report has to include a section summarizing significant litigation and other legal proceedings in which it is involved. For some companies, these sections can go on for pages, which says a lot about the corporate tendency to run afoul of the law. Even so, these sections are often incomplete, since companies are given discretion in deciding which cases are “material,” meaning that fines and other penalties could have a significant impact on earnings.  To get a fuller picture of corporate legal entanglements, you need to search the dockets on the PACER subscription service, which for large companies will be voluminous, or use the free summaries on the Justia website.

EXECUTIVE COMPENSATION. The annual proxy statements filed by publicly traded companies provide exhaustive details on the salaries, bonuses and other compensation received by top executives (and directors).  Designated in the EDGAR system as Form DEF14A, these documents seem to try to drown the reader in details to downplay the impact of lavish pay packages. Note that what is called the Summary Compensation Table does not include essential information such as the amount (shown elsewhere) that an executive realized from the exercise of stock options.

EMPLOYMENT ISSUES. Companies are required to disclose their total number of employees but do not have to provide a geographical breakdown. Some do so voluntarily, but many others can hide the tendency to create many more jobs in foreign cheap-labor havens than at home. Because the penalties are usually small, companies tend not to disclose violations of federal rules regarding overtime pay, the minimum wage and other Fair Labor Standards Act issues.  Fortunately, the Department of Labor has included wage and hour compliance information in its new enforcement website.

OCCUPATIONAL SAFETY AND HEALTH. Companies also rarely mention violations of occupational safety and health, for which penalties are also meager. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, to its credit, makes available a database of all workplace inspection results going back to the creation of the agency; the DOL enforcement website provides access to this as well. Unfortunately, there are no summaries of the compliance records of large companies across their various establishments.

LABOR RELATIONS. Companies are required to report on labor relations issues only if there is a likelihood of a work stoppage that could affect corporate profits. With the decline of unions in the U.S. private sector, many companies do not bother to mention labor relations at all. Disputes that result in a formal ruling by the National Labor Relations Board will show up on that agency’s website.

ENVIRONMENTAL COMPLIANCE. Companies frequently discuss environmental regulation in the 10-K filings and will mention major enforcement actions. Yet these accounts are usually incomplete.  The Environmental Protection Agency fills in the gaps with its Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) database.

TAXES. Buried in the notes to the company’s financial statements is a section with details on how much it paid (or in many cases did not pay) in the way of taxes. This information is presented with a high degree of obfuscation, so it is fortunate that Citizens for Tax Justice publishes reports that summarize the extent to which large U.S. companies engage in flagrant tax avoidance.

SUBSIDIES. Corporate filings usually say little or nothing about the subsidies received from government, and it is often impossible to learn from other sources what those amounts may be when it comes to subsidies that take the form of federal tax breaks. There is much more company-specific data available on subsidies from state governments. In my capacity as research director of Good Jobs First, I have collected that data and assembled it in the Subsidy Tracker database.

GOVERNMENT CONTRACTS. Companies will report on government contracts only if they make up a substantial portion of their total revenue. Thanks to the work of OMB Watch in creating the FedSpending database, which the federal government adapted for its USASpending tool, it is possible to learn a great deal about how much business a given firm is doing with Uncle Sam. Data on contracts with state governments can often, though not always, be found via state procurement websites.

LOBBYING AND POLITICAL SPENDING. Corporations are not eager to disclose their efforts to shape public policy, and the SEC does not require them to do so. The Center for Political Accountability, on the other hand, was created to put pressure on companies to be more open about their political spending. The group has succeeded in getting about 100 corporations to adopt political disclosure. The inadequate information that gets disclosed at the behest of the Federal Election Commission can be found on websites such as Open Secrets, while state-level electoral data is summarized on the Follow the Money site. Both also provide access to the available data on lobbying.

Inadequate political disclosure by corporations is not limited to the United States. A recent study by Transparency International on 105 of the world’s large companies found that only 26 engaged in satisfactory reporting of political contributions. That was just one component of an analysis that looks at a variety of transparency measures that relate broadly to anti-corruption initiatives. Some of the worst results concern the simple matter of whether firms provide full country-by-country data on their operations and financial results.

The latter shows how disclosure issues of concern to investors and financial analysts can intersect with those relating to corporate accountability. When a company is allowed to use excessive forms of aggregation in its reporting, it may be hiding either poor management or corporate misconduct or both.

Note: The information sources discussed above as well as many others are discussed in my guide to online corporate research.

Taking Corporate Farmers Off the Dole

Thursday, May 5th, 2011

The signal from House Majority Leader Eric Cantor that Republicans are ready to consider cuts in farm subsidies may be a false alarm, like the one that Speaker John Boehner recently set off with regard to oil industry tax breaks.

It’s quite possible that once Cantor and his colleagues take a closer look at the agricultural giveaways, they will realize that the biggest recipients are not traditional farmers but large corporations—the GOP’s primary constituency these days.

Unlike the oil subsidies, which consist of tax preferences available to the entire industry, farm subsidies are direct payments from Uncle Sam to specific parties. A large portion of those payments go to a small number of beneficiaries. Of the $247 billion paid out since 1995, one-quarter of the total has gone to the top 1 percent of recipients, and three-quarters to the top 10 percent.

Thanks to the efforts of the Environmental Working Group—whose president Ken Cook describes the subsidy system as a “contraption that might have sprung from the fevered anti-government fantasies of tea party cynics if Congress hadn’t thought it up first”—you can go to a website and search by name or ZIP code to see exactly how much has been paid out to any individual or business.

EWG also helpfully provides various national compilations that show which beneficiaries have had their snouts deepest into the federal trough. By far the biggest cumulative winners are Riceland Foods ($554 million) and Producers Rice Mill Inc. ($314 million). These are both technically cooperatives, but there is little to distinguish them from other agribusiness giants. Riceland, with revenues of more than $1 billion, is the world’s largest rice miller and one of the country’s largest grain storage firms. It sells rice products to foodservice operators and directly to consumers.

A more interesting entry in the top ten is Pilgrim’s Pride, with cumulative subsidies of $26 million. With a history of health and safety problems, labor abuses and financial instability, it is one of the most controversial corporations in the U.S. agribusiness sector.

The company, which tends to refer to itself these days simply as Pilgrim’s (apparently, the pride is gone), was built by Texas chicken farmer Lonnie “Bo” Pilgrim into a poultry powerhouse through a series of aggressive acquisitions that began in the 1970s. Bo did not let the niceties get in the way. He once handed out campaign contribution checks to Texas lawmakers right on the floor of the legislature. His chicken plants were criticized by labor advocates for creating an epidemic of worker injuries and by animal rights advocates for treating the chickens inhumanely.

In 2002 the company had to recall a record 27 million pounds of poultry products after an outbreak of Listeria at a plant run by its Wampler Foods subsidiary. In 2007 Pilgrim’s was sued by the U.S. Department of Labor for overtime violations and later had to distribute more than $1 million in back pay. In 2008 federal officials raided Pilgrim’s plants in five states and arrested hundreds of workers for immigration violations. The company later paid $4.5 million to settle charges of hiring undocumented workers.

Saddled with debt from a $1.3 billion acquisition of rival Gold Kist, Pilgrim’s filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2008, leading to the closing of plants, the elimination of thousands of jobs and the cancellation of contracts with many of its captive farmers. In 2009 Pilgrim’s emerged from bankruptcy after being taken over by Brazilian meat mega-producer JBS, which also gained control of Swift & Company.

Federal farm subsidies have no doubt provided essential assistance to some family farmers in times of need, but too much of the money has gone to the likes of Pilgrim’s Pride. After years in which this waste has survived despite endless criticism, perhaps the time has finally come when these corporate giveaways will be curtailed.

The Dark Side of Family Business

Friday, August 27th, 2010

Americans love entrepreneurship, and no form of it is more celebrated than the family business. Most of us distrust big banks and giant corporations, but who doesn’t have warm feelings about mom and pop companies or family farms? These are the types of firms that politicians of all stripes want to shower with tax breaks and other forms of government assistance.

The problem is that family enterprises, like pet alligators, may start out as small and cuddly but can grow into large and dangerous monsters. We’ve seen two examples of this recently in connection with the family-owned oil company Koch Industries and the egg empire controlled by the DeCoster Family.

Koch Industries and its principals David and Charles Koch are the subject of a detailed article in The New Yorker by Jane Mayer. Much of the information in the piece has previously come out in blogs, websites and muckraking reports by environment groups, but she does a good job of consolidating those revelations and presenting them in a prestigious outlet.

Mayer describes how the Kochs, who are worth billions, have for decades used their fortune to bankroll a substantial portion of rightwing activism and are currently the big money behind groups such as Americans for Prosperity that are helping coordinate the purportedly grassroots Tea Party movement. What makes the Kochs especially insidious is that they use the guise of philanthropy to fund organizations promoting policy positions – environmental deregulation and global warming denial – that directly serve the Koch corporate interests, which include some of the country’s most polluting and greenhouse-gas-generating operations. The Kochs also contribute heavily to mainstream philanthropic causes such as the Metropolitan Opera and the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center to win influential allies and gain respectability.

The DeCosters, whose egg business is at the center of the current salmonella outbreak, are not in the same social circles as the Kochs, but they have an even more egregious record of business misconduct. Hiding behind deceptively modest company names such as Wright County Egg, the family, led by Jack DeCoster, has risen to the top of the egg business while running afoul of a wide range of state and federal regulations.

As journalists such as Alec MacGillis of the Washington Post have recounted, the DeCosters have paid millions of dollars in fines for violating environmental regulations (manure spills), workplace health and safety rules (workers forced to handle manure and dead chickens with their bare hands), immigration laws (widespread employment of undocumented workers), animal protection regulations (hens twirled by their necks, kicked into manure pits to drown and subjected to other forms of cruelty), wage and hour standards (failure to pay overtime), and sex discrimination laws (female workers from Mexico molested by supervisors).

Their lawlessness dates back decades. A November 11, 1979 article in the Washington Post about Jack DeCoster’s plan to expand from his original base in Maine to the Eastern Shore of Maryland states that he was leaving behind “disputes over child labor, union organizing drives and citations for safety violations.” In 1988 the Maryland operation was barred from selling its eggs in New York State after an outbreak of salmonella. In 1996 the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the DeCosters $3.6 million for making its employees toil in filth. Then-Labor Secretary Robert Reich said conditions were “as dangerous and oppressive as any sweatshop we have seen.”

The DeCosters were notorious enough to be featured in a 1999 report by the Sierra Club called Corporate Hogs at the Public Trough.  The title referred to the fact that concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) such as those operated by the DeCosters were receiving substantial federal subsidies despite their dismal regulatory track record.

Articles about Jack DeCoster invariably describe him as self-made and hard-working. “Jack doesn’t fish, he doesn’t hunt, he doesn’t go to nightclubs,” a farmer in Maine told the New York Times in 1996. “He does business — 18 hours a day.” He was recently described as a “born-again Baptist who has contributed significant amounts of money to rebuild churches in Maine and in Iowa.”

Like the Kochs, DeCoster apparently thinks that some philanthropic gestures will wipe away a multitude of business transgressions. Yet no amount of charitable giving can change the fact that these men grew rich by disregarding the well-being of workers, consumers and the earth. Such are the family values of these family businessmen.

Federalize BP

Friday, May 28th, 2010

President Obama’s declaration that the federal government is in charge of the response to the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is apparently meant to deflect Katrina comparisons and show that his administration is fully engaged. With that p.r. mission accomplished, Obama now needs to turn to the question of what to do about BP.

As a helpful Congressional Research Service report points out, the Oil Pollution Act of 1990 gives the federal government three options: monitor the efforts of the spiller, direct the efforts of the spiller, or do the clean-up itself. So far, the Obama Administration has followed the second path and resisted growing pressure to “federalize” the response.

This was said to be necessary because the feds do not have the technical expertise to handle a deepwater leak. As Coast Guard Adm. Thad Allen, the National Incident Commander, put it: “To push BP out of the way would raise the question of: Replace them with what.”

The idea that the government is completely dependent on BP to stop the leak is a dismaying thought. But even if it’s true, it no longer applies once the gusher is brought under control. When the center of attention shifts from 9,000 feet below the surface to the clean-up, there is no reason why BP should continue to run things.

The simple fact is that the company cannot be trusted. As Obama himself noted, the company’s interests diverge from those of the public when it comes to assessing the true extent of the damage and deciding what is necessary in the way of remediation. Keep in mind that BP’s total liability will be determined at least in part by the final estimate of how much oil its screw-ups caused to be released into the ocean. It has every incentive to obscure the full magnitude of the catastrophe.

The company’s motivation in employing massive quantities of the controversial chemical Corexit may have had more to do with dispersing evidence of the spill than with helping the ecosystem of the gulf recover. BP had to be pressured to back off from a plan to have clean-up workers sign confidentiality agreements to prevent them from disclosing what they observed. The company resisted making public the live video feed showing the full force of the oil spewing out of the wrecked well and then delayed making a high-definition version of that video available to federal investigators.

For BP, job one is now not clean-up but cover-up. Allowing it to manage the ongoing response would be akin to allowing the prime suspect in a mass murder to assist in processing the crime scene.

Taking operational control of the clean-up away from BP should be a no-brainer, but it is not enough. This is a company that has repeatedly shown itself to be reckless about safety precautions. The gulf disaster comes on the heels of previous incidents—a 2005 explosion at a refinery in Texas that killed 15 workers and a 2006 series of oil spills at its operations in the Alaskan tundra—in connection with which it pleaded guilty to criminal charges and paid large fines. It was also put on probation that has not yet expired.

An individual who violates probation can be deprived of liberty through imprisonment. A giant corporation that violates its probation—as BP undoubtedly has done by breaking various federal and state laws in its actions precipitating the Deepwater Horizon explosion—cannot be put behind bars, but it can be deprived of freedom of action.

Federal sentencing guidelines (p.534) allow probation officers to monitor the finances of a business or other organization under their supervision. In BP’s case, the issue is safety. One way to ensure that the company acts responsibly is to station inspectors inside all of its U.S. operations (at BP’s expense) to oversee any operational decision that could impact the safety of workers and the environment. Those inspectors would also make it harder for the company to cover up the full extent of what it has done to the Gulf Region.

In other words, the Obama Administration should federalize not only the Gulf of Mexico clean-up but BP itself. That would show that the government really is in charge until we can be sure that the oil giant is no longer a public menace.

Punishments that Fit BP’s Crimes

Friday, May 21st, 2010

Few things enrage the American public more than hearing about a criminal who is given a light sentence and then commits another offense. This scenario is not limited to murderers and rapists. Corporations can also be recidivists.

We’re currently contending with such a culprit in the (corporate) person of BP. The oil giant’s apparent negligence in connection with the ongoing disaster in the Gulf of Mexico comes on the heels of two previous major accidents in which the company was found culpable: a 2005 explosion at a refinery in Texas that killed 15 workers and a 2006 series of oil spills at its operations in the Alaskan tundra.

Those earlier cases are not just another blot on BP’s blemished track record. In both instances the company was compelled to plead guilty to a criminal charge and not only heavily fined but also put on probation for three years. On a single day in October 2007, the U.S. Justice Department announced these plea agreements along with the resolution of another criminal case in which BP was charged with manipulation of the market for propane. In the latter case, prosecution of BP was deferred on the condition that the company pay penalties of more than $300 million and be subjected to an independent monitor for three years.

In other words, at the time that BP engaged in behavior that contributed to the Gulf catastrophe, it was under the supervision of federal authorities for three different reasons. Although the terms of the probation and independent monitor agreements refer to the parts of BP’s business involved in the offenses, federal law (18 USC Section 3563) requires that “a defendant not commit another Federal, State, or local crime during the term of probation.”

Given the distinct possibility that BP will face new criminal charges, the question arises: what would be a suitable punishment? When an individual violates his or her probation by committing a new offense, the usual result is imprisonment. Federal sentencing guidelines say that when an organizational defendant commits such a violation, the remedy is to extend the period of the probation.

That hardly seems adequate in the case of an egregious repeat offender such as BP. Just as an individual loses certain rights when imprisoned, so should a corporate probation violator face serious consequences. Here are some possibilities:

  • Ineligibility for federal contracts. BP is among the top 30 federal contractors. That privilege should be suspended.
  • Ineligibility for federal drilling leases. BP has shown itself to be reckless when it comes to drilling. It should no longer be able to obtain leases to drill on public lands or in public waters.
  • Ineligibility for federal tax incentives. Like other oil companies, BP receives a variety of special tax advantages such as writeoffs of intangible drilling costs. It should be denied such benefits.
  • Suspension of the right to lobby. According to the Open Secrets database, BP spent nearly $16 million last year on federal lobbying. As a probation violator, it should be barred from trying to influence public policy.
  • Moratorium on image-burnishing advertisements. As the Gulf debacle continues, BP is spending heavily on advertising to convey the message that it is doing everything in its power to address the problem. Once it is designated a probation violator, it should be barred from that sort of crisis marketing.
  • Public admission of fault. At the point that BP pleads guilty to another criminal offense, an appropriate penalty might be to force it to take the money now being spent to repair its image and use it to run ads admitting its misbehavior. Nothing would be more satisfying than hearing BP admit that its purported devotion to corporate social responsibility has been a sham.

No doubt there are legal barriers to such measures, but we need to go beyond the current wrist-slapping approach to the punishment of corporate crime and create deterrents that once and for all get the likes of BP to take safety and environmental regulations seriously.

Bad Karma in the Gulf of Mexico Oil Disaster

Friday, May 7th, 2010

British Petroleum is, rightfully, taking a lot of grief for the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but we should save some of our vituperation for Transocean Ltd., the company that leased the ill-fated Deepwater Horizon drilling rig to BP. Transocean is no innocent bystander in this matter. It presumably has some responsibility for the safety condition of the rig, which its employees helped operate (nine of them died in the April 20 explosion).

Transocean also brings some bad karma to the situation. The company, the world’s largest offshore drilling contractor, is the result of a long series of corporate mergers and acquisitions dating back decades. One of the firms that went into that mix was Sedco, which was founded in 1947 as Southeastern Drilling Company by Bill Clements, who would decades later become a conservative Republican governor of Texas.

In 1979 a Sedco rig in the Gulf of Mexico leased to a Mexican oil company experienced a blowout, resulting in what was at the time the worst oil spill the world had ever seen. As he surveyed the oil-fouled beaches of the Texas coast, Gov. Clements made the memorable remarks: “There’s no use in crying over spilled milk. Let’s don’t get excited about this thing” (Washington Post 9/11/1979).

At the time, Sedco was being run by Clements’s son, and the family controlled the company’s stock. The federal government sued Sedco over the spill, claiming that the rig was unseaworthy and its crew was not properly trained. The feds sought about $12 million in damages, but Sedco drove a hard bargain and got away with paying the government only $2 million. It paid about the same amount to settle lawsuits filed by fishermen, resorts and other Gulf businesses. Sedco was sold in 1984 to oil services giant Schlumberger, which transferred its offshore drilling operations to what was then known as Transocean Offshore in 1999.

In 2000 an eight-ton anchor that accidentally fell from a Transocean rig in the Gulf of Mexico ruptured an underwater pipeline, causing a spill of nearly 100,000 gallons of oil. In 2003 a fire broke out on a company rig off the Texas coast, killing one worker and injuring several others. As has been reported in recent days, a series of fatal accidents at company operations last year prompted the company to cancel executive bonuses.  It’s also come out that in 2005 a Transocean rig in the North Sea had been cited by the UK’s Health and Safety Executive for a problem similar to what apparently caused the Gulf accident.

Safety is not the only blemish on Transocean’s record. It is one of those companies that engaged in what is euphemistically called corporate inversion—moving one’s legal headquarters overseas to avoid U.S. taxes. Transocean first moved its registration to the Cayman Islands in 1999 and then to Switzerland in 2008. It kept its physical headquarters in Houston, though last year it moved some of its top officers to Switzerland to be able to claim that its principal executive offices were there.

In addition to skirting U.S. taxes, Transocean has allegedly tried to avoid paying its fair share in several countries where its subsidiaries operate. The company’s 10-K annual report admits that it has been assessed additional amounts by tax authorities in Brazil and that it is the subject of civil and criminal tax investigations in Norway.

In 2007 there were reports that Transocean was among a group of oil services firms being investigated for violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in connection with alleged payoffs to customs officials in Nigeria. No charges have been filed.

An army of lawyers will be arguing over the relative responsibility of the various parties in the Gulf spill for a long time to come. But one thing is clear: Transocean, like BP, brought a dubious legacy to this tragic situation.