Archive for March, 2011

Making Honeywell Feel the Heat

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

How would you describe the situation of a corporation involved in union-busting, mishandling of radioactive waste, production of nuclear weapons and the effort to lower corporate tax rates while cutting Social Security and Medicare? If you are Barron’s, you’d say the firm is “in its sweetest spot in more than a decade.”

That’s the way the investment weekly describes Honeywell International in a recent article that gushes over the company’s financial results and predicts that its stock is “poised for liftoff.” Honeywell, a $33 billion transnational, is viewed differently in Metropolis, Illinois, where some 230 members of the United Steelworkers union have been locked out of their jobs for more than nine months.

Apologists for the attacks on public employees often try to disavow anti-union motivations by saying they have no problem with collective bargaining in the private sector. Honeywell is a glaring reminder that challenges to worker rights can be found among employers of all types these days.

The dispute in Metropolis—which calls itself the hometown of the fictional character Superman—brings together a variety of current hot-button issues, including unions, nuclear power, environmental protection, healthcare coverage and pensions. Honeywell’s plant is the sole facility in the country that converts uranium ore into the uranium hexafluoride gas used in the production of both nuclear power and nuclear weapons. This is a risky process that involves highly toxic materials.

These dangers were highlighted in December 2003, when an accidental release of toxic gas forced the evacuation of nearby residents and the shutdown of the plant for four months. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) issued two violations relating to the way the company handled the incident.

Given such hazards, the members of Steelworkers Local 7-669 have long focused on safety issues, both for themselves and for the surrounding community. The union has been particularly concerned about the high rate of cancer among the workforce and thus has sought to negotiate good health coverage for active workers and retirees. During contract renegotiations last year, Honeywell sought to eliminate retiree health benefits, reduce pensions for new hires, cap severance pay and contract out maintenance. When the union balked but declined to strike, the company abruptly locked out the workers in June. And in a move made all the more reckless by the dangerous nature of the work, the company brought in poorly trained replacements to keep the plant operating.

In September, a loud explosion was heard at the plant but there were no reports of toxic releases. A Steelworkers report notes that the company was cited by the NRC for improperly coaching replacement working during on-site job evaluations by federal inspectors. Honeywell’s safety image was further tarnished just a few weeks ago, when the U.S. Justice Department and the EPA announced that the company had paid a criminal fine of $11.8 million to resolve a charge of illegally storing hazardous and radioactive materials in Metropolis.

The $11 million is the latest addition to the more than $650 million in fines and damages Honeywell has paid since 1995 in connection with 32 instances of misconduct collected by the Project On Government Oversight in its Federal Contractor Misconduct Database (the company ranks 17th in amount paid out).

Honeywell’s record of corporate irresponsibility goes back even farther. From the late 1960s through the late 1980s, the old Honeywell (prior to its 1999 takeover by AlliedSignal, which adopted the name) was targeted by antiwar activists because of its production of cluster bombs and land mines that were widely used in Vietnam and later because it was unwilling to take responsibility for clearing munitions that remained after the war was over.

Despite this checkered history, Honeywell has remained a large federal contractor. It is involved, for example, in both the clean-up of the Cold War-era Savannah River nuclear weapons complex in South Carolina and the construction of a new nuclear arms production facility in Kansas City.

And if all the above is not enough controversy, Honeywell CEO David Cote was named by President Obama (before the lockout) to the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which issued a report in December that, among other things, proposed cuts in corporate tax rates. Cote issued a personal statement complaining that the report did not take a harder line on Medicare and Medicaid, and he recently called for cuts in Social Security. He also just told Bloomberg Television that he would love to see corporate income taxes entirely eliminated.

For many people, the Honeywell name is still associated with thermostats. But today, it is a poster child for much that is wrong with corporate America—mistreatment of workers, environmental recklessness, military profiteering, and unwillingness to pay a fair share of taxes. It should be made to feel more of the heat itself.

A Good Merger for a Change

Thursday, March 24th, 2011

AT&T’s proposed $39 billion acquisition of its smaller cell-phone rival T-Mobile has been widely criticized as anti-competitive and bad for consumers. Normally, I would be joining in such a chorus, but this is a special case.

Giant mergers are usually bad news not only for consumers but also for workers, especially if they happen to be unionized. Acquisitions are typically followed by layoffs and sometimes by efforts to bust unions at the firm being purchased. This was seen, for instance, after the acquisition of Northwest Airlines by Delta, which has been accused of intimidating flight attendants and other Northwest workers into decertifying their unions last year.

A very different dynamic is at work in the T-Mobile/AT&T deal. This is a rare instance in which the acquiring company has a vastly better labor relations record than the target.

Let’s start with T-Mobile. The cell phone provider, owned by Deutsche Telekom, has aggressively opposed an organizing drive launched by the Communications Workers of America (CWA) after the German company entered the U.S. market a decade ago. The company’s anti-union crusade, not widely reported in the mainstream media, has employed the usual techniques of targeting workers with propaganda, misinformation, captive meetings and warnings that unionization would lead to job losses.

What makes T-Mobile’s practices all the more egregious is that Deutsche Telekom has good relations with unions in Germany. It is one of numerous European companies that operate under a global double standard: cooperating with unions at home while fighting them tooth and nail in the United States. It was one of those firms singled out in a report issued last year by Human Rights Watch with the title A Strange Case: Violations of Workers’ Freedom of Association in the United States by European Multinational Corporations.

The report charges that “T-Mobile USA’s harsh opposition to workers’ freedom of association in the  United States betrays Deutsche Telekom’s purported commitment to social responsibility, impedes constructive dialogue with employee representatives, and in several cases, has violated ILO and OECD labor and human rights standards.”

These findings reinforced the conclusions of an earlier report written by John Logan for the American Rights at Work Education Fund.

Consider, by contrast, the case of AT&T, which in its current incarnation is the result of the 2006 recombination of various parts of the old Bell system that had been broken up in 1984. Its mobile phone business is what was previously known as Cingular Wireless.

Before the creation of the new AT&T, Cingular had adopted a policy of strict neutrality with regard to union organizing drive—the stance that the law requires but which is rarely adhered to by U.S. employers. That policy carried over into AT&T, which in 2007 was honored by American Rights at Work for its enlightened labor practices. A report issued by the group at the time quoted an AT&T executive as saying that the company “has long taken pride in our cooperative and respectful relationship with the unions that represent our employees.”

In keeping with this position, AT&T recently told a reporter from BNA’s Labor Relations Week (subscribers only) that it would maintain strict neutrality regarding union organizing after acquiring T-Mobile. This means that an estimated 23,000 T-Mobile employees would have an excellent chance of finally gaining union representation.

It is thus no surprise that CWA and the AFL-CIO have voiced support for the merger. This should not be viewed as a matter of narrow self-interest. The remarkable response to Wisconsin’s attack on union rights has revived the old labor solidarity principle that an injury to one is an injury to all. A corollary to that is that a boon to the rights of one group of workers is a boon to all.

The achievement of collective bargaining rights by 20,000-plus T-Mobile employees would be one of the largest labor gains in the U.S. private sector in many years and could serve as an important lesson about the willingness of workers to embrace unions when management thuggery is taken out of the picture.

Also keep in mind that if AT&T does not acquire T-Mobile, it might end up in the hands of the other industry giant, Verizon Wireless, which also has a dismal record on labor relations.

All this is not to discount the concerns of consumer groups. The fact that AT&T is union-friendly does not give it a pass in other areas. It wouldn’t hurt if the CWA works with consumer groups to be sure that AT&T does not abuse its bigger position in the market.

NOTE: Dirt Diggers Digest now has a Facebook page, where the latest posts are also available. Please pay a visit and feel free to click on the “like” button to bring the tally up to a more respectable level.

Nuclear Deception

Thursday, March 17th, 2011

After hearing the term “meltdown” used so often as a metaphor for the financial crisis, it is shocking to confront the prospect of a literal meltdown at some of Japan’s nuclear reactors in the wake of the devastating earthquake and tsunami. There is something the two situations have in common: corporate misconduct.

The company that operates the heavily damaged reactors, Tokyo Electric Power (TEPCO), is one of the most unethical large corporations that I have ever examined. It has an astounding history of deceptions and cover-ups made all the more egregious by the grave risks inherent in the business of generating nuclear power in a country prone to earthquakes.

TEPCO’s transgressions first came to light in 2002, after Japan’s nuclear regulatory agency belatedly began to investigate whistleblower allegations that the company had regularly falsified repair reports and inspection data concerning its nukes. The agency found evidence that the company had engaged in the deception for some 15 years, in some cases concealing the existence of cracks in the steel plates surrounding reactor cores as well as other defects.

The uproar over the revelations forced TEPCO’s president and chairman to resign. This was not just a matter of higher-ups taking responsibility for the misdeeds of underlings. There were reports that the top executives were aware of what was going on. The scope of the subterfuge also continued to grow, prompting some observers to liken the situation to the big U.S. corporate scandals involving companies such as Enron and WorldCom. TEPCO, which was forced to shut down its reactors for extended periods, later admitted that the data falsifications went back as far as the late 1970s.

In 2007 the company admitted that it had concealed incidents involving the emergency shutdowns of its Fukushima reactors—those involved in the current crisis—back in the mid-1980s. A few months after the admission, TEPCO had to apologize for delays and errors in announcing the extent of the damage at its nuclear plant in Kashiwazaki following an earthquake in the northwestern part of the country. When the whole story became known, local officials ordered TEPCO to shut down the plant.

The incident also prompted criticism of TEPCO for building the plant on top of an active seismic fault. It was unclear whether the company had been unaware of the fault or had ignored its presence; in either case, TEPCO looked highly irresponsible. It was later reported that the company had understated the intensity of the earthquake. The Kashiwazaki plant remained offline for more than two years.

TEPCO’s dishonesty is not limited to its nuclear operations. In 2007 it was one of ten utility companies cited by the Japanese government for falsifying data on the large quantities amounts of river water they used for power generation. TEPCO was found to have submitted bogus information on one of its hydroelectric plants for 13 years.

The mendacity of TEPCO is not just a matter of concern for the Japanese. In May 2010 the company announced it would purchase a 10 percent interest in the South Texas nuclear project, one of a slew of proposed new nukes that hope to receive a share of the billions of dollars in federal assistance promised by the Obama Administration to encourage a nuclear renaissance in the United States, where a new nuclear plant hasn’t opened in decades.

Japan’s disaster is already casting a very dark cloud over the prospects for that renaissance.  Debate over new U.S. nukes should not be limited to the technical safety issues. The example of TEPCO raises the question of whether a corporation can be trusted with a technology that has the potential to do such massive harm.

Billionaires, Blowhards and Bribery

Friday, March 11th, 2011

Billionaire Sheldon Adelson

The bond between David Koch and Scott Walker is not the only relationship between a reactionary billionaire and a rightwing politician contaminating the U.S. political scene. Attention also needs to be paid to what’s going on between Sheldon Adelson and Newt Gingrich.

Adelson — the fifth wealthiest person in the United States, with a net worth estimated by Forbes at $23 billion — has made a major bet on Gingrich. Since 2006 he has contributed $7 million to Gingrich’s fundraising entity American Solutions for Winning the Future. Through this 527 vehicle (and a regular political action committee with the same name), Gingrich is raking in loads of cash as he teases the country about whether he plans to run for President while mouthing off with a variety of reckless policy pronouncements.

The American Solutions website has a section labeled Corruption. In January a post there announced a new feature called Corrupt Report that was supposed to monitor news of misbehavior “regardless of political party.” Somehow the site has failed to cover the recent disclosure by Adelson’s company, Las Vegas Sands, that it is being investigated by both the Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. Justice Department for possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The Nevada Gaming Control Board is also said to be looking into the matter.

The investigations presumably involved Adelson’s four casinos in Asia — three in China-controlled Macao and one in Singapore — where Las Vegas Sands has branched out from its U.S. gambling operations.

It will be interesting to see how a gambling-related bribery scandal affects the political prospects of Gingrich, who already has the burden of reconciling his “family values” rhetoric with the fact that he has been twice divorced.

Adelson’s support for Gingrich is far from his only foray into conservative politics. Like a number of other billionaires, he seems to have built his reactionary views on a foundation of anti-union animus. This began in the late 1990s, after Adelson purchased the Sands hotel and casino in Las Vegas — the former hangout of Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack — and tore it down to make way for the gargantuan Venetian gambling emporium.

The Sands had been a unionized operation, but Adelson refused to recognize the Culinary Workers at the Venetian. When union supporters picketed in front of the casino, he tried to have them arrested, setting off a legal battle that lasted for a decade. More recently, Adelson was an outspoken foe of the Employee Free Choice Act, and today the Las Vegas Sands brags in its 10-K filing that none of the workers at its casinos are covered by collective bargaining agreements.

In 2007 Adelson founded  Freedom’s Watch, an advocacy group that tried to build support for the Bush Administration’s surge strategy in Iraq, beat the drum on what it called the “Iranian Threat” and which in 2008 was being touted as the right’s answer to MoveOn.org — a claim that somehow missed the distinction between a group funded by large numbers of small contributions and one bankrolled mostly by a single multi-billionaire. Despite that money, Freedom’s Watch was a short-lived flop.

Adelson also became active in Israel, where he started a conservative newspaper and became a leading backer of rightwing politicians, especially Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He has also been an apologist for the repressive Chinese government, which allowed him to build his lucrative casinos in Macao.

At times Adelson has been called the Right’s answer to George Soros. The difference is that Adelson’s political views serve his financial self-interest, especially when it comes to paying taxes. According to a 2008 profile of the gambling magnate in The New Yorker, Adelson once said to an associate: “Why is it fair that I should be paying a higher percentage of taxes than anyone else?”

It’s amazing that Adelson, whose only higher education came from a stint at the tuition-free City College of New York, can forget that progressive taxation (or what’s left of it) is what pays for the public institutions and infrastructure that help people like him succeed.

Even more dismaying than billionaires’ deluding themselves into thinking that they are completely self-made is the fact that they can now use large amounts of their undertaxed wealth to promote policies that make life ever more harsh for the rest of us.

Challenging Corporate America’s Hiring Freeze

Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

You would never know it from the preoccupation with budget deficits and the attack on public unions, but there is still a severe jobs crisis in the United States.

The focus on the state and federal fiscal situation has deflected attention from what should be a major scandal: the failure of big business to accelerate hiring in step with the emerging recovery in overall economic activity.

In recent weeks the dimensions of that scandal have become increasingly apparent as corporations report lush earnings for 2010 while hiring remains depressed. To highlight this incongruity, I looked at the top 50 companies on the most recent Fortune 500 list. Twenty-nine of them have recently reported their annual profits while also disclosing the size of their payroll as of the end of the fiscal year.

On the earnings side, it is truly fat city. The 29 posted aggregate net income of $239 billion, a whopping 48 percent increase from the year before. Oil companies, of course, are raking it in. Exxon Mobil was up 58 percent and Chevron 81 percent. Service sector giants are also reporting much richer bottom lines. UPS showed an increase of 62 percent and AT&T 63 percent. Some blue chip industrials more than doubled their earnings. Boeing soared 152 percent and Ford Motor 141 percent.

By contrast, the employment figures are pitiful. Together, the 29 corporations reported a decline of about 3,500 positions in their aggregate head count of some 4.6 million. While most of the companies showed little change—and some banks increased their hiring a bit—a few of the corporate giants slashed payrolls. Telecommunications behemoth Verizon Communications reduced its workforce by 28,500 jobs while boosting its profits more than 13 percent. General Electric, whose CEO Jeff Immelt is advising the Obama Administration on job creation, got rid of 17,000 net positions during 2010 while enjoying a 6 percent rise in earnings. (GE is one of the few companies that provide a geographic breakdown of their workforce. In the U.S. GE’s head count was down by 1,000.)

It’s interesting that the percentage decrease in head count at Verizon and GE is almost identical to the percentage increase in profits at each of the companies.

Given these numbers, why is big business facing little criticism for its hiring freeze? There is a tendency to regard even large corporations as helpless in the face of economic conditions, and they are not expected to resume hiring until the market mandates it. Yet the overall economy is picking up and still there is a resistance to hiring.

Corporate apologists such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce would have us believe that the reason is excessive workplace regulation. The Chamber has just come out with a report making the preposterous claim that if state governments would only curtail their employment rules to the lowest common denominator, 746,000 new jobs would magically materialize.

A major reasons hiring is anemic is that workplace rules—and union presence—are too weak rather than too strong. Companies can do more business and garner more profits without increasing their head count largely because there is nothing stopping them from squeezing more work out of the same number of employees. Stricter protections and more collective bargaining would result in higher employment levels.

One of the favorite policy prescriptions for high joblessness is to offer tax credits to companies to hire more people. The existence of those programs at the state and federal levels is, however, contributing little to job creation.

Rather than thinking up more incentives, perhaps there we should create a disincentive for corporations to continue their hiring boycott. There is a growing awareness these days that big business is not paying its fair share of taxes.  We could begin to address this problem by creating tax penalties for profitable companies that refuse to use their earnings to alleviate understaffing.

Pressuring corporations to do more hiring would not only improve life for the overworked employed and reduce the ranks of the unemployed. The additional tax revenue that comes in—whether from the penalties or the withholding paid by the newly hired—would also alleviate the state and federal fiscal crunch and make it easier for us to ignore those who insist that cutting the size of government is the solution to everything.