Archive for the ‘Workplace Safety & Health’ 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.

Bringing Regulatory Fines Into the 21st Century

Thursday, September 3rd, 2015

texascityIn spite of perennial business complaints about regulatory overreach, for decades large corporations were able to break the law knowing that the potential financial penalties would inflict little pain. Typical fines were the commercial equivalent of parking tickets.

In recent years, the Justice Department has forced Corporate America to pay a higher price for its sins. Major banks, in particular, now have to consent to ten or eleven-figure settlements, such as Bank of America’s $16.7 billion payout last year.

DOJ, however, handles a limited number of cases. The question is whether the federal regulatory agencies are following suit in bringing penalty levels into the 21st Century.

I’ve been looking at the enforcement data for those agencies as part of the preparation for the Violation Tracker my colleagues and I will introduce this fall. The numbers are a mixed bag.

One agency that has apparently recognized the importance of substantial penalties is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In July it imposed a civil penalty of $105 million on Fiat Chrysler for failing to carry out a recall of 11 million defective vehicles in a complete and timely manner. The penalty, the highest in the agency’s history, followed a $70 million penalty against Honda earlier in the year. In 2000 Chrysler (then owned by Daimler) was fined only $400,000 for a deficient recall.

By contrast, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is still applying laughably low penalty amounts. The list of “significant enforcement actions” on its website shows only about three dozen cases in which any penalty at all was imposed in the period since 2009, and only five of those involved amounts above $50,000.

The NRC list appears not to have been updated recently, but a look at recent press releases by the agency show that penalty amounts continue to be modest. In April of this year, the agency fined a subsidiary of Dominion Resources all of $17,500 for security violations at a facility in Wisconsin.

Despite a series of significant accidents, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is still lagging in its penalty amounts. Since 2010 it has collected fines of $1 million or more in only three cases, and it still imposes penalties below $10,000 in some instances.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which has a much larger jurisdiction than these other agencies, seems to have one foot in the past and a couple of toes in the present when it comes to penalty levels. As the AFL-CIO’s Death on the Job report points out, the average penalty per inspection is only about $10,000.

In a limited number of high-profile cases, OSHA brings out the big guns. When BP failed to live up to the terms of a settlement stemming from a massive explosion in 2005 at its Texas City refinery (photo) that killed 15 workers, the agency proposed penalties of $87 million (though it settled for $50 million after the company appealed).

Financial penalties by themselves are not a panacea for ending the corporate crime wave, but they are certainly part of the solution. And the bigger the better.

Addendum: Upon re-reading this post I realized I should have mentioned that agencies vary in the amount of discretion they have in setting penalties. In some cases maximum fines are determined by law. My point is that regulators should make full use of the power they have to set penalties as high as possible in cases of egregious offenses.

Big Coal’s War on Its Workers

Thursday, August 27th, 2015

helmets_wide-b8e68ac63c226846ea9705fcf6fc13535c1b2b2e-s800-c85Fossil-fuel apologists have accused the Obama Administration of waging a war on coal in its effort to cut power plant greenhouse gas emissions. Yet the main source of the industry’s distress is the energy market, and the real war is the one coal companies have for years carried out against the health and safety of its workforce.

There’s no doubt that Big Coal is in trouble. One of the industry’s largest players, Alpha Natural Resources, recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, following the path taken by competitors such as James River Coal, Walter Energy and Patriot Coal. Financial weakness prompted the delisting of Alpha and Walter Energy from the New York Stock Exchange. Industry leader Peabody Energy has seen its share price tumble even before the current market tumult. It is now trading at around $2 a share, compared to $70 in 2011.

Given the outsize role played by coal in the climate crisis, it is difficult to work up much sympathy for the industry in its time of trouble. While it is tempting to simply let the dirty industry shrink towards disappearance, there needs to be a just transition for those who have risked their lives extracting the fossilized carbon from the ground.

The magnitude of that risk has been made clear to me recently in the preparatory work I’ve been doing for the Violation Tracker database my colleagues and I at Good Jobs First will release this fall. The initial version will cover penalties imposed by agencies such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration and, most relevant to the current discussion, the Mine Safety & Health Administration.

Based on preliminary results, it now appears that coal mining companies will turn out to be among the corporations with the largest aggregate federal environmental, health and safety penalties during the past five years. The largest mining offender is Alpha Natural Resources, whose penalty tally will top $100 million.

That reflects the fact that Alpha is now home to two of the most controversial firms in U.S. mining history: Pittston Coal and Massey Energy. Pittston had a long record of environmental and safety violations before its operations were used in the creation of Alpha in 2002, but even more notorious was Massey, which was responsible, among other things, for the 2010 Upper Big Branch mining disaster in West Virginia that took the lives of 29 workers, the most fatalities in a U.S. coal accident in 40 years. In the wake of that disaster, which an independent report attributed to management failures, Alpha agreed to purchase Massey. We thus attribute Massey’s violations to it.

At least 20 other coal mining companies will show up in Violation Tracker with $1 million or more in total penalties. The largest amounts, in excess of $30 million each, will be linked to Murray Energy, whose head Robert Murray has vowed his firm will be the “last man standing” in the coal industry, and Patriot Coal.

Patriot, a spinoff from Peabody Energy, is a prime example of the vindictiveness of the coal industry toward miners. Its Chapter 11 filing earlier this year was its second in three years. In both cases the company has tried to use the bankruptcy court as a way to undermine its contractual commitments to United Mine Workers members and retirees, especially with regard to pension and health plan contributions. Its current move against worker benefits comes as the company, which is trying to sell off its assets, is awarding more than $6 million in executive bonuses.

A repeated health and safety violator and a raider of worker benefits. It’s hard to imagine anyone will be sad to see Patriot disappear.

The Limits of the Koch Charm Offensive

Thursday, August 6th, 2015

koch_charlesCharles and David Koch and their Koch Industries conglomerate, long known for an unapologetic defense of unfettered capitalism and hard-right politics, are said to be going soft. The brothers are taking pains to associate themselves with more progressive policies such as criminal justice reform, while their corporation has been running feel-good ads highlighting its purported commitment to enlightened principles such as sustainability.

At the same time, the Kochs are depicting themselves as backers of supposedly responsible Republican presidential candidates and shunning iconoclastic front-runner Donald Trump.

The Koch charm offensive does have its limits. A slew of groups funded by the billionaires are at the forefront of the campaign against the Obama Administration’s Clean Power Plan and are doing their best to defend fossil fuels. When it comes to environmental policy, the Kochs are still in the stone age.

That position is not merely a matter of ideology. Their opposition to environmental and other safety regulations amounts to a defense of the way the Kochs do business.

This was made clear to me in some work I’ve been doing on a new research tool called Violation Tracker that my colleagues and I at Good Jobs First are preparing. Patterned on our Subsidy Tracker, the new resource will take company-specific data on regulatory violations and link the individual entries to the parent corporations of the culprits. This will allow us to present violation totals for large firms and show which of them are the most frequent offenders.

The initial version of Violation Tracker, which will be released this fall, will cover data from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration and a few other federal health and safety agencies. Coverage on wage and hour violations, financial sector transgressions and other forms of corporate misconduct will come later.

A preliminary tally of EPA and OSHA data from the past five years indicates that units of Koch Industries have been hit with more than $3.5 million in penalties. The biggest amount comes from Flint Hills Resources, the conglomerate’s oil refining arm. For example, in 2014 the company had to pay $350,000 and sign a consent decree to resolve EPA allegations that it was violating the Clean Air Act through flaring and leaking equipment.

Georgia-Pacific, the Koch Industries forest products company, received more than $600,000 in penalties during the five-year period. These included $60,000 in penalties proposed in January by OSHA in connection with worker exposure to formaldehyde and other dangerous substances.

In 2013 the fertilizer company Koch Nitrogen had to pay $380,000 to settle allegations that its facilities in Iowa and Kansas violated the Clean Air Act.

Regulatory violations by Koch businesses began before the five-year period that will be initially covered in Violation Tracker.

For instance, in 2000 the Justice Department and the EPA announced that Koch Industries would pay what was then a record civil environmental fine of $30 million to settle charges relating to more than 300 oil spills. Along with the penalty, Koch agreed to spend $5 million on environmental projects in Texas, Kansas and Oklahoma, the states where most of its spills had occurred. In announcing the settlement, EPA head Carol Browner said that Koch had quit inspecting its pipelines and instead found flaws by waiting for ruptures to happen.

Later in 2000, DOJ and the EPA announced that Koch Industries would pay a penalty of $4.5 million in connection with Clean Air Act violations at its refineries in Minnesota and Texas. The company also agreed to spend up to $80 million to install improved pollution-control equipment at the facilities.

In a third major environmental case against Koch that year, a federal grand jury in Texas returned a 97-count indictment against the company and four of its employees for violating federal air pollution and hazardous waste laws in connection with benzene emissions at the Koch refinery near Corpus Christi. The company was reportedly facing potential penalties of some $350 million, but in early 2001 the newly installed Bush Administration’s Justice Department negotiated a settlement in which many of the charges were dropped and the company pled guilty to concealing violations of air quality laws and paid just $10 million in criminal fines and $10 million for environmental projects in the Corpus Christi area.

In 2002 Koch Petroleum Group, the Koch entity involved in most of these environment problems, was renamed Flint Hills Resources. That name change was as cosmetic as the current charm offensive.

If the Kochs really want to improve their reputation, they should go beyond public relations and make fundamental alterations in their business practices.

Preventing Death on the Job

Thursday, July 30th, 2015

dupont_laporteThe Occupational Safety & Health Administration recently put DuPont on its list of severe violators and proposed fines totaling $273,000 in connection with last year’s chemical leak at a pesticide plant in La Porte, Texas that killed four workers. OSHA called the deaths preventable and accused DuPont of having “a failed safety program.”

This was a severe blow to a company that prides itself on having a “world-class” safety system and which thinks so highly of its skills in this area that it provides safety consulting services to other companies. DuPont expressed disappointment at OSHA’s actions.

The gap between (self) image and reality is nothing new at DuPont. The company’s claims to be a safety leader are not recent measures to address the fallout from the deadly accident in Texas. In his 1984 book America’s Third Revolution: Public Interest and the Private Role, former DuPont CEO Irving Shapiro called the company’s safety record “extraordinary” and made the preposterous claim that its employees “are safer on the job than at home.”

These statements flew in the face of safety problems at DuPont that extended back at least to the 1920s, when numerous workers were poisoned, some fatally, in connection with the production of tetraethyl lead for gasoline.

During the early 1970s, evidence began to emerge of high levels of bladder cancer among DuPont production workers, especially at the Chambers Works in New Jersey. Since at least the 1930s there had been evidence linking beta-nephthylamine (BNA), a chemical used in dye bases, to cancer. Yet the company went on producing BNA at Chambers until 1955, and after it was dropped DuPont went on making benzidine, another carcinogen, for ten more years.

In the years since Shapiro’s book, the safety problems have continued. In 1987 a New Jersey Superior Court jury found that DuPont officials and company doctors deliberately concealed medical records that showed six veteran maintenance workers had asbestos-related diseases linked to their jobs.  Also in 1987, the company agreed to pay fines totaling $11,100 as part of a settlement of OSHA charges relating to record-keeping at plants in Dallas and Niagara Falls, New York.

In 1995 oil company Conoco, then owned by DuPont, agreed to pay $1.6 million to settle OSHA charges related to an explosion and fire the year before that killed a worker at a refinery in Louisiana.

In 1999 OSHA announced that DuPont would pay $70,000 to settle charges that it failed to record more than 100 injury and illness cases at its plant in Seaford, Delaware.

In 2010 OSHA criticized DuPont for exposing employees to hazardous chemicals at its plant in Belle, West Virginia, where a worker had died after a ruptured hose released a large quantity of phosgene gas. The following year, OSHA cited DuPont for dangerous conditions after a contract welder was killed when sparks set off an explosion in a slurry tank at a plant in Buffalo, New York. In 2012 the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board added its criticism of the company in connection with the Buffalo accident.

In short, the accident at La Porte, which had a history of previous violations, is far from an anomaly for DuPont. The only surprising aspect of the story is why OSHA did not come down on the company much harder.

Rena Steinzor, a University of Maryland law professor and author of the book Why Not Jail?, has posted an article criticizing OSHA for not seeking criminal charges against DuPont. The Corporate Crime Reporter notes that OSHA chief David Michaels, asked about Steinzor’s critique at a recent press conference, dismissed her piece but did not explain why the DuPont case did not merit a criminal referral to the Justice Department.

OSHA has long been reluctant to go the criminal route, relying instead on civil proceedings and ridiculously low financial penalties. In its latest Death on the Job report, the AFL-CIO notes that since the agency was created fewer than 100 criminal enforcement cases have been pursued. During this same period there have been more than 390,000 workplace fatalities.

The agency’s willingness to put a large company like DuPont on the severe violators list, which is dominated by smaller firms, especially in the construction industry, is a step forward. But OSHA will need to do a lot more to address the ongoing tragedy of workplace fatalities and disease.

Getting Tough with El Corpo

Thursday, July 16th, 2015

get_out_of_jail_freeAs part of my summer reading I’ve been taking another look at some of the key works of the past on corporate crime to consider their relevance for today.

One of the titles on my list is Russell Mokhiber’s Corporate Crime and Violence, which profiled three dozen of the most egregious cases of environmental, workplace hazard and defective product abuses that had occurred in the years leading up to the publication of the book in 1988. Among the culprits were Dow Chemical (Agent Orange), Occidental Petroleum (Love Canal), Johns Manville (asbestos), General Electric (PCBs) and Ford Motor (exploding Pintos).

Mokhiber, editor of the excellent newsletter Corporate Crime Reporter, also reviewed the debates on how to define and how to address corporate misconduct and presented his own “50-Point Law & Order Program to Curb Corporate Crime.”

What strikes me is how little has changed in the past 27 years. Now, as then, we are faced with a seemingly endless series of incidents in which large corporations have caused serious harm to communities, the environment, workers and consumers. BP has had to pay around $20 billion to settle the many charges and claims brought against it in connection with the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico. An ignition switch defect that General Motors failed to correct has been linked to more than 100 deaths. Safety lapses by coal miner Massey Energy (now part of Alpha Natural Resources) allegedly led to a methane explosion that killed 29 workers.

One difference is that we now also have an epidemic of serious financial crimes by major banks. Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo have each had to pay billions to settle allegations relating to the sale of toxic securities in the period leading up to the financial, foreclosure abuses and other issues. European banks such as Credit Suisse, HSBC and UBS have paid billions more to U.S. and European regulators to settle issues such as tax evasion, violations of economic sanctions and manipulation of the LIBOR interest rate index.

As in 1988, there is little consensus these days on what to do about corporate miscreants. Mokhiber focused on the debate between two camps. On the one side were those who wanted to exempt corporations from criminal charges (because these non-human persons supposedly could not exhibit criminal intent or have a criminal state of mind) and instead use exclusively civil cases to extract more burdensome financial penalties.

On the other side were those, including Mokhiber, who called for applying criminal law more aggressively, arguing, among other things, that the stigma of a criminal conviction would serve as a powerful deterrent against corporate misconduct.

While the debate was never resolved, a quarter of a century later the remedies proposed by both camps have come to pass. Civil penalties have risen to unprecedented levels. Billion-dollar settlements are now commonplace in cases involving large corporations, and in a few cases such as BP, Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase, the payouts have reached eleven figures.

At the same time, settlements in which major corporations plead guilty to criminal charges are becoming more common. Responding to public pressure, the Justice Department first extracted such pleas from subsidiaries of foreign banks UBS and Credit Suisse; this year it got Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase to do the same in a case involving manipulation of foreign exchange markets.

The sad reality is that the application of penalties that seemed so bold in the 1980s seem to be doing little to chasten big business.

Corporations have adjusted to the big penalties, which in some cases are not as large as they seem because they may be tax deductible. The payments are seen as a cost of doing business, and even at their unprecedented levels, the costs are usually well below the financial benefits the culprit companies enjoyed from the illicit activity.

Being convicted felons has not changed things much for banks such as Citigroup and JPMorgan Chase. There is no sign that this stigma has cost them many customers, and their ability to continue to operate in regulated areas has been assisted by special waivers given to them by agencies such as the SEC.

Like the escaped Mexican drug lord called El Chapo, large corporations – El Corpo, so to speak – have an extraordinary and frustrating ability to neutralize measures designed to punish them for their misdeeds. If we are ever going to get corporate crime under control, we’ll have to get a lot more creative. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another 27 years to figure it out.

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.

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.