Archive for February, 2011

Public Employees and the Public Interest

Thursday, February 24th, 2011

Chicago Tribune, January 29, 1900

Well before Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker began his unholy crusade, the Right was heavily promoting its claim that public employee unions are a threat to the public. The title of a 2009 book by conservative ideologue Steven Greenhut said it all: Plunder! How Public Employee Unions are Raiding Treasuries, Controlling Our Lives and Bankrupting the Nation.

What the union bashers are trying to obscure is that public employees have a long history of supporting policies that promote the broad public interest. This goes back to the very roots of the public employee union movement.

In the 1890s teachers in Chicago created a federation that became the first real teachers union and one of the pioneers of public employee unionism in general. When the federation, led by Margaret Haley and Catherine Goggin (illustration), was confronted with a move by the board of education to cut teacher salaries because of a purported fiscal crisis, the teachers responded to the claim of a revenue shortfall in a creative way. They launched an intensive investigation of tax dodging by some of the largest corporations in the city, finding that property tax underpayments amounted to some $4 million a year (serious money back then).

Tax officials were reluctant to crack down on powerful business interests, so the teachers sued, eventually winning a favorable ruling in the Illinois Supreme Court (though the U.S. Supreme Court later went the other way).

A cynic might say that the teachers were simply acting in their self-interest by finding a new revenue source that would help restore their lost wages. Yet their goal was also to find funds that could improve conditions in the schools—and those conditions were truly abysmal. In his 1975 history of the American Federation of Teachers, William Edward Eaton writes that in the 1890s:

The teachers of Chicago daily faced the horrors of overcrowded, unsanitary buildings stuffed with too many children and controlled by an impersonal bureaucratic structure. This they did with poor pay, no job security, and no pension system.

The efforts of teacher organizations to address these problems, through collective bargaining as well as tax justice campaigns, also redounded to the benefit of the students and their families.

The Chicago teachers were also an important force in the passage of the Illinois Child Labor Law of 1903. That cynic might say this was aimed at boosting school enrollment and increasing the demand for teachers. Maybe so, but can anyone deny that banning child labor was also a boon for society as a whole, aside from sweatshop proprietors?

In the decades that followed, unions of teachers and other government employees have been among the strongest advocates of a vibrant public sector. They have continued to be leading critics of corporate tax dodging and opponents of efforts to gut public services. Unions such as AFSCME have been at the forefront of campaigns to stop the contracting out of government functions and the privatization of public assets such as highways—practices that usually work to the detriment of taxpayers as well as public employees.

The state and local public employee unions accomplished this against all odds. Denied the protection of the National Labor Relations Act, they had to get states one-by-one to recognize their right to organize—the right that is at risk in Wisconsin and elsewhere. It took a period of remarkable militancy in the 1960s and 1970s—including defiance of laws banning strikes by public employees—before they made significant progress. Among those strikes was the 1968 walkout by sanitation workers in Memphis, where Martin Luther King Jr. was visiting to show his support when he was assassinated.

And even then there were often severe fiscal limits on the ability of public employees to bargain for substantial wage gains. To compensate, many public unions put more emphasis on securing better retirement benefits for their members. These pension rights—in effect, deferred wages—are now under attack as if they were some giant giveaway.

The real giveaways are the lavish business tax cuts and corporate subsidies that the likes of Gov. Walker promote at the same time that they are demanding severe concessions from government workers. The great confrontation of 2011 comes down a question of whose interests are more closely aligned with those of the public at large: those who teach our children, drive our buses and put out fires in our homes—or superwealthy individuals and large corporations that are reluctant to create new jobs.

With each passing day, the momentum is moving in favor of the descendants of the 1890s Chicago teachers who are fighting for their rights and for the public interest in Madison, Columbus and other capitals across the nation.

Note:  A new movement called US Uncut is organizing actions around the country calling for a crackdown on corporate tax dodging as an alternative to harmful cuts in government programs such as education.

The Selective Sanctity of Contracts

Friday, February 18th, 2011

Along with the rule of law and private property rights, the sanctity of contracts is considered fundamental to “economic freedom.”  Yet certain kinds of contracts, namely the collective bargaining agreements of U.S. public sector workers, are now starting to be regarded as dispensable.

In Wisconsin, newly elected Gov. Scott Walker – whose official website is emblazoned with the slogan “Wisconsin is Open for Business” – is trying to strip state employees of their right to bargain collectively on the full range of workplace issues and force them to pay a much larger portion of the cost of their pension and healthcare benefits, sparking unprecedented protests (photo).  Similar attacks on public bargaining rights are under way in states such as Ohio, and a wide array of public officials are talking about the possibility of reneging on state and local government pension benefits negotiated over many years.

These assaults on the contract rights of public workers are said to be necessitated by the dire fiscal condition of many states. Yet it is telling that those assaulting public unions are not also questioning the viability of other expensive government obligations, for which the beneficiary is business rather than labor.

State and local governments spend an estimated $70 billion a year on economic development subsidies – corporate income tax credits, property tax abatements, direct cash grants, etc. – to lure large companies to invest in their jurisdiction or to retain those already there. They do so despite extensive evidence that such subsidies are often immaterial in corporate site selection decisions and that their costs—which for some tax deals can last for decades—often far outweigh the economic benefits of the investment.

The current fiscal crisis is a perfect opportunity for states to abandon these self-defeating subsidy practices. Yet aside from a small number of places such as California, where Gov. Jerry Brown is seeking to eliminate the highly ineffective enterprise zone program, and a few other states where film production tax credits have been reduced or suspended, surprisingly little is being done to end the corporate giveaways.

Shutting down or cutting back the boondoggle programs would limit new obligations, but if states are truly facing a fiscal emergency perhaps they should also look for ways to escape from expensive financial commitments that are already in place. Why are state and local governments not looking for ways to abrogate existing subsidy agreements?

Some might say that companies would lay off workers if they had to return subsidies. That’s debatable, but the problem could be addressed by limiting the revocations to large and profitable companies. For example, why shouldn’t Google (2010 profits: $8.5 billion) be required to give back the big subsidy packages it has extracted for its data centers, including $200 million for a facility in Lenoir, North Carolina and about $50 million for one in Council Bluffs, Iowa?

The same goes for the big Wall Street firms. Should Goldman Sachs (2010 profits: $8.4 billion) be allowed to keep the $175 million in subsidies (and $1.7 billion in tax-exempt financing) it received for its new headquarters in lower Manhattan—or the $164 million it got for an operation across the river in New Jersey?

What about Boeing ($2.1 billion in profits for the first three quarters of 2010): Should it retain the estimated $900 million subsidy package it received for its new Dreamliner production line in Charleston, South Carolina?  Must Procter & Gamble ($12.7 billion in profits for the fiscal year ending June 2010) retain the $85 million tax break it got for a plant in Utah?

And, of course, there is Wal-Mart (which will soon announce annual profits expected to exceed $14 billion). Over the years it has received what my colleagues and I at Good Jobs First estimate at more than $1.2 billion in subsidies at hundreds of stores and around 90 percent of its 100 or so distribution centers—including at least five facilities in Wisconsin. Couldn’t it afford to give some of that back in a time of need for many of the communities in which it operates?

Business advocates would no doubt scream bloody murder if subsidy abrogation were ever seriously considered by state or city governments. They would accuse officials of breaking solemn promises and poisoning the business climate. They would mobilize small business owners to defend the rights of their larger brethren. And they would waste no time bringing suit against public officials for breach of contract.

On what basis can subsidy agreements be considered sacrosanct while public sector collective bargaining agreements and pension obligations are torn to shreds? The failure of those seeking to undermine commitments to public workers to also call for sacrifices by business suggests that their real objective may have more to do with ideology than fiscal relief.

Note: For more details on the subsidy deals cited above and many more, see the Accountable USA state pages of the Good Jobs First website (index by company name here). And see our Subsidy Tracker database as well.

Putting Off Corporate Absolution

Thursday, February 10th, 2011

I was just beginning to recover from President Obama’s dismaying speech at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce when I found myself in the middle of another effort to gloss over the misdeeds of big business. This occurred at the annual conference of the BlueGreen Alliance, which brought together some 1,600 labor and environmental activists to discuss the prospects for a sustainable economy but also invited representatives of some supposedly enlightened corporations.

When we gathered for lunch on the first day we first had to listen to a presentation by David Kiser, a vice president at International Paper, which is listed in the conference program as one of the “Platinum Sponsors” of the event. Kiser went on about IP’s commitment to “environmental stewardship” and “caring for employees.”

I had to restrain myself from laughing out loud. IP has one of the worst track records of any major corporation when it comes to both labor and environmental practices. Some of the earliest anti-corporate research I ever did was to assist a campaign launched by the Paperworkers union (now part of the Steelworkers, which co-founded the BlueGreen Alliance) to resist company demands for contract concessions in the 1980s.

After workers at an IP mill in Mobile, Alabama voted against the concessions, they were locked out by the company. The Mobile workers then made a coordinated bargaining pact with their counterparts at three other IP mills—in Jay, Maine, Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, and De Pere, Wisconsin—where contracts were expiring and the rank and file had decided to strike rather than concede.

IP responded by bringing in replacement workers from around the country, many of them recruited by BE&K, an Alabama-based construction company that had diversified into strikebreaking. The campaign by the striking and locked-out locals was eventually crushed by the company.

Yet during that campaign, workers at the mill in Jay, Maine (photo, from 1973) drew national attention to the environmental hazards of IP’s operations, which were a major contributor to the dioxin problem due to chlorine used in the paper bleaching process. The labor and environmental issues intersected in February 1988, when unskilled strikebreakers hired by the company accidentally broke the valve on a tank containing chlorine dioxide gas in pressurized liquid form. About 112,000 gallons of the liquid poured out and vaporized into a huge green cloud that floated out from the mill, forcing the evacuation of some 3,000 people from homes, schools and businesses. If the weather had been warmer and the winds weaker, many could have died.

Paperworker union members helped enact local ordinances in Jay that cracked down on IP’s emissions and pressured Maine state officials to file suit against the company for environmental violations. IP paid $885,000 to settle the charges. Later, the U.S. EPA also brought action against the company, which in 1991 pleaded guilty to five felony charges and paid a fine of $2.2 million. Over the following decade, IP was implicated in state and federal environmental violations in states such as New York, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Mississippi, Florida, California, Georgia and Virginia.

Since the early 2000s the company has been trying to rehabilitate its environmental image by actions such as donating land to conservation groups and appointing the head of one such group to its board of directors.  Yet the company remains a heavy polluter. In the EPA’s most recent Toxics Release Inventory, IP mills rank first and second among all paper facilities in the total volume of releases and account for 15 of the industry’s top 50 polluters, with total toxic releases of more than 43 million pounds.

IP’s labor relations are a lot less tumultuous these days, but in the last decade the company has slashed its U.S. hourly workforce from 45,000 down to 24,000.

The International Paper of 2011 is not the same as the IP of 1988, but I still find it difficult to regard the company as an ally in the effort to shape the green economy of the future. It takes a long time for the impact of past transgressions to dissipate.

This was brought home to me at another session at the BlueGreen Alliance conference. An official of the EPA was talking about how Recovery Act money is being used to help clean up a Superfund hazardous waste site in New Jersey where a long-defunct company had dumped large quantities of radioactive thorium once used in the production of gas lamps. Thorium, the EPA guy noted, has a half life of 14 billion years.

When the impact of business misbehavior can endure for eons, it will take more than a few social responsibility gestures to redeem corporate sinners.

Mubarak’s Foreign Corporate Backers

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

Pro-Mubarak thugs charged into Tahrir Square on horses and camels in an effort to save the embattled Egyptian dictator. It was not long ago that the regime was being propped up by a different breed of supporter: foreign investors arriving on corporate jets with billions of dollars in capital.

Long overdue attention is being paid to the foreign arms contractors that have equipped the Egyptian military with weapons funded by U.S. aid programs. Also deserving of close scrutiny are the major U.S. and European corporations that have invested heavily in Egypt, thereby shoring up the regime. Here are some of the main culprits.

BP. Formerly known as British Petroleum, BP has a long history in the Middle East in general and Egypt in particular. The company’s website makes no bones about its huge involvement in Egypt during the Mubarak regime: “BP Egypt has been a significant part of the Egyptian oil and gas industry for more than 44 years. During this time, we’ve been responsible for almost half of Egypt’s entire oil production and we are the single largest foreign investor in the country…Over the years we’ve established strong relationships with the Egyptian Government and the Ministry of Petroleum.” In July 2010 BP agreed to sell some of its Egyptian assets to Apache Corporation as part of a divestment effort to raise funds to pay for the cleanup of its massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Nestlé. Just a week before protests broke out in Cairo, this Swiss food giant announced that it would invest some $170 million to expand its existing factories and distribution centers in Egypt, adding 500 new jobs to its 3,000-person workforce. After the announcement, the country’s Ministry of Investment put out a press release quoting Nestlé’s CEO as saying that the move was based on studies “that had proven Egypt to be a promising market with security, stability and high profitability in the long term.”

Procter & Gamble. In June 2010 P&G laid the cornerstone on a huge new diaper manufacturing plant outside Cairo. The $176 million facility would nearly double the value of P&G’s operations in Egypt, which currently involve the production of products such as detergents, soaps and other personal care products.

Electrolux. The Swedish appliance company announced last October that it would spend about $475 million to buy a controlling interest in Egypt’s Olympic Group, the largest producer of household appliances in the Middle East and North Africa.

Saint-Gobain. In July 2010 the large French construction materials firm opened a $100 million glass production plant in Ain El Sokhna on Egypt’s Red Sea coast.

PepsiCo. In December 2009, International Dairy and Juice Limited, a joint venture between PepsiCo and Almarai, announced that it had acquired Egypt’s International Company for Agro-Industrial Projects (Beyti).

Deals such as these – some of which are now on hold – helped to make Egypt the second largest recipient of foreign direct investment among African nations (behind Angola). In 2008 the U.S.-based National Outsourcing Association named Egypt its “Outsourcing Destination of the Year.”

The appeal of Egypt for foreign investors is not just better access to a market of 80 million consumers. As in China, a repressive political environment has weakened the power of labor and kept down wages to the advantage of major employers, both foreign and domestic.

Egyptian workers have been attempting to build a movement that would help raise their standard of living. A series of labor protests helped pave the way for the current uprising. The group that is credited with sparking the revolt, the April 6 Movement, takes its name from the effort to support workers who launched an aborted general strike in 2008. Hundreds of workers took to the streets of Cairo last May to call for an increase in the country’s pitiful minimum wage while also calling for an end to Mubarak’s rule. And amid the current revolt, Egyptian workers formed a new independent labor federation.

Large corporations try to have it both ways. They promote the view that the expansion of “free” markets goes hand-in-hand with the growth of free societies, yet they do not hesitate to do business in the most repressive societies. And they are quick to take advantage of repression’s side effects, above all weak unions.

However the uprising in Egypt turns out, it has served to highlight the hypocrisy not only of the U.S. government but also that of big business when it comes to selective support for democracy. And like the Obama Administration, major corporations will have to scramble to avoid ending up on the wrong side of history.