Archive for November, 2009

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

Friday, November 20th, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Misbehaving Contractors are Recovery Act Winners

Friday, November 13th, 2009

ARRA logoThe federal government has awarded about $17 billion in direct contracts under the various provisions of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). Given the Administration’s commitment to accountability, one hopes that the contractors were chosen with the utmost care and that any companies with serious blemishes on their record were excluded.

If the timing had been a bit different, such a review could have been accomplished much more easily. The General Services Administration is in the process of implementing legislation passed by Congress last year that mandates the creation of a database on the integrity and performance record of federal contractors and grantees. In September GSA published a notice in the Federal Register about its plans for what is being called the Federal Awardee Performance and Integrity Information System, or FAPIIS. The comment period on the plan ended earlier this month. Perhaps the system will be operational before ARRA reaches the end of its two-year life.

Unfortunately, the public will never know the details of how FAPIIS is used to vet contractors for ARRA or any other program. The reason is that Congress caved in to pressure from the contractor community and prohibited public disclosure of the database, which will be available only to federal agencies for internal use.

Fortunately, the public still has access to the Federal Contractor Misconduct Database (FCMD), which was created and is maintained by the non-profit Project On Government Oversight (POGO). It served as the inspiration for FAPIIS, though POGO and other watchdog groups pushed for a public version of the federal database. The FCMD, which covers the 100 largest federal contractors, documents more than 700 cases of misconduct since 1995 that resulted in more than $26 billion in fines and penalties. It covers a wider range of misconduct than will FAPIIS.

Apparently, most federal agencies did not pay close attention to the FCMD in awarding their ARRA contracts. An examination of the national Recovery Act contractor spreadsheet shows that many of those companies appear in POGO’s database as having been involved in cases of misconduct. They account for more than $6 billion in Recovery Act contract awards.

There are 12 contractors with more than one instance of misconduct and ARRA contracts of at least $150 million.* Here they are (listed by volume of ARRA contracts):

  • CH2M ($1.8 billion in ARRA contracts; 6 instances of misconduct with penalties of $2.8 million)
  • URS ($737 million in contracts; 4 instances and $2.4 million in penalties)
  • Northrop Grumman ($596 million in contracts; 29 instances and $821 million in penalties)
  • Battelle Memorial Institute ($522 million in contracts; 7 instances and $1.3 million in penalties)
  • Honeywell International ($472 million in contracts; 31 instances and $641 million in penalties)
  • Fluor ($469 million in contracts; 23 instances and $198 million in penalties)
  • SAIC ($312 million in contracts; 10 instances and $14 million in penalties)
  • Bechtel ($270 million in contracts; 15 instances and $359 million in penalties)
  • University of California ($270 million in contracts; 25 instances and $67 million in penalties)
  • Lockheed Martin ($180 million in contracts; 50 instances and $577 million in penalties)
  • University of Chicago ($163 million in contracts; 4 instances and $22 million in penalties)
  • Jacobs Engineering ($161 million in contracts; 2 instances and $37 million in penalties)

When the nation’s largest contractors have track records such as these, it is not surprising that Congress chose to keep its misconduct database a secret.

* In the case of joint ventures, the amount of the contract award is divided equally among the companies or institutions involved.

Stimulus Lobbying Pays Off for Major Contractors

Friday, November 6th, 2009

K streetLast spring, when the ink was barely dry on the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), there was already concern about an emerging frenzy of lobbying on behalf of corporations seeking a slice of the stimulus pie.

The Obama Administration enacted rules designed to make ARRA lobbying more transparent. That didn’t work out very well, but the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board recently completed the release of the first round of quarterly disclosure reports by ARRA recipients. In part, these reports serve as a score card showing which companies won the great stimulus lobbying competition.

Beginning with a list of the largest direct federal contracts, I ran the names of the prime contractors through the invaluable lobbying database maintained by the Center for Responsive Politics. Many of the largest contracts went to joint ventures set up by major engineering companies to do clean-up work at nuclear facilities owned by the Department of Energy. In those cases I searched the names of the individual parent companies (and some universities) involved.

There are a total of 52 companies and institutions involved with the 50 largest ARRA contracts. Of these, 34 show up as clients in the Center’s lobbying database. These include large corporations such as Bechtel, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, General Motors and Ford—as well as smaller players. Also on the list are educational institutions such as the University of California, Stanford University and the University of Chicago.

So far in 2009, the 34 have spent a total of $65 million on lobbying the federal government. Of course, not all that lobbying can be attributed to the quest for stimulus contracts, but it shows in general terms that the ARRA winners include some of the biggest influence-peddlers in Washington.

Moreover, there is every reason to think that a significant portion of their lobbying efforts were focused on stimulus contracts. I searched the database of lobbyist disclosure reports provided by the Senate Office of Public Records. Of those 34 contractors, 24 show up as clients in 2009 lobbying reports in which the word “recovery” or “stimulus” is mentioned in the description of the specific issues on which the lobbyists reported working.

It’s not possible to determine how much of their spending went specifically to ARRA issues. But whatever portion of the $65 million was involved, it was money well spent for the contractors. The 24 that definitely had lobbyists working on ARRA matters ended up with stimulus contracts worth some $7.4 billion. That’s an impressive return on political investment.

Now we can only hope that these and other stimulus contractors crank up their hiring so taxpayers also get something significant out of this bonanza. According to the recent ARRA recipient reports, some of the projects being carried out by those two dozen firms have already created (or retained) a substantial number of jobs. Yet others, in a pattern seen in the overall ARRA contractor data, report few or no jobs despite having already received substantial sums for the projects.