Archive for February, 2012

The Price of a U.S. Manufacturing Revival

Thursday, February 23rd, 2012

A few decades ago, U.S. factory jobs began moving offshore to countries that lured corporations with the prospect of weak or non-existent unions, minimal regulation, lavish tax breaks and other profit-fattening benefits. Workers in those runaway shops enjoyed little in the way of a social safety net, thus making them all the more dependent on whatever dismal employment opportunities foreign firms had to offer. Much of the U.S. manufacturing sector was left for dead.

Now, we are told, U.S. manufacturing is undergoing a resurrection. “Manufacturing is coming back,” President Obama told a group of blue-collar workers at a recent public event. “Companies are bringing jobs back.” Obama earlier used the State of the Union address to tout the recovery of the U.S. auto industry in the wake of the bailout he championed. One of the bailed-out firms, Chrysler, aired a Super Bowl commercial called “It’s Halftime in America” in which Clint Eastwood hailed the country’s industrial recovery.

It’s true that manufacturing employment has been on the rise after many years on the decline. But is this something calling for unqualified celebration?

Boosters of the industrial resurgence would have us believe it is a reflection of improved U.S. productivity, entrepreneurial zeal or, as Obama put it in the State of the Union, “American ingenuity.” In the case of Chrysler, that should be Italian ingenuity, given that the bailout put the company under the control of Fiat.

But it can just as easily be argued that domestic manufacturing is advancing because the United States has taken on more of the characteristics of the countries that hosted those runaway shops. Deunionization, deregulation, corporate tax preferences, excessive business subsidies and a shriveled safety net are more pronounced than ever before in the U.S. economy. If any of the Republican Presidential candidates get in office, those trends will only accelerate.

Even the Obama Administration is on the bandwagon to a certain extent. Its Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs has obstructed a slew of new environmental and workplace safety regulations. Now the President has legitimized years of conservative rhetoric claiming that companies are overtaxed by introducing a corporate tax reform plan that would reduce statutory rates in general and create an even lower rate for manufacturers. The plan has some good intentions—such as ending special giveaways to Big Oil and other loopholes while encouraging corporations to bring jobs back home—but it ignores years of evidence from groups such as Citizens for Tax Justice showing that big business will exploit any softening of the tax code to bring its actual payments down to the absolute lowest levels.

The perils of joining the manufacturing revival chorus can be seen by looking at heavy equipment producer Caterpillar. The company has been getting a lot of attention lately for expanding its domestic employment through moves such as the planned construction of a $200 million plant in Athens, Georgia that is projected to employ about 1,400.

This needs to be put in some context. According to data in Cat’s 10-K filings, the company’s workforce outside the United States soared from around 13,000 in the early 1990s to more than 71,000 last year, growing to some 57 percent of the firm’s total employment. The number of foreign workers in 2011 was greater than the company’s total head count in 2003.

Cat’s love affair with places such as China blossomed as the company was trying to escape its U.S. unions, which it had unsuccessfully tried to destroy. Cat’s hard-line approach to collective bargaining soured relations with its workers, resulting in a series of strikes and other confrontations, including a dispute in the 1990s that lasted for more than six years.

It appears that unions have no role in Cat’s limited back-to-the-USA plan. The company’s new domestic facilities tend to be located in “right to work” states. After recently trying to impose huge pay cuts at a factory in Ontario (photo), Cat first locked out the workers, then shut down the plant and is now reported to be shifting the work to a facility in Muncie, Indiana, the latest state to adopt a “right-to-work” law to hamstring unions.

By locating the Athens plant in a labor-unfriendly state such as Georgia, Cat is expected to be able to pay wages far below those in its unionized plants. It is also worth noting that Cat agreed to build the plant in Georgia only after it received $75 million in tax breaks and other financial assistance, one of the largest subsidy packages the state has ever offered.

The message of all this seems to be that the U.S. can enjoy a renewal of manufacturing if we are only willing to put up with a few minor inconveniences such as union-busting and big tax giveaways to corporations. That’s apparently what is really meant by American ingenuity.

Unions in the Crosshairs

Thursday, February 16th, 2012

“We’ll make the unions understand full well that they are not needed, not wanted, and not welcome in the State of South Carolina,” Gov. Nikki Haley declared in her recent State of the State address. “I love that we are one of the least unionized states in the country. It is an economic development tool unlike any other.”

While treating unions as pariahs, Haley celebrated corporations. During her speech she asked representatives of a dozen companies that have invested in the state to stand up and take a bow.

Haley’s brazen expression of anti-union animus is a sign of the times. From statehouses and Congressional hearing rooms to corporate boardrooms and bankruptcy courts, organized labor is under attack. Union strength has been waning for many years as a result of structural changes in the economy and dysfunctional labor laws. Foes of unions are now acting aggressively to try to hasten that decline.

Last year, apologists for the effort to eradicate public sector collective bargaining rights in states like Wisconsin insisted that it was not an assault on unions in general. Yet these days private sector union members are in the crosshairs as well.  Indiana, in the heart of the industrial Midwest, recently enacted a “right to work” law, the first state to take this deliberate step to weaken unions in more than a decade. Legislators in states such as South Carolina that are already in the “right to work” camp are considering bills that would make it even more difficult for unions to operate.

Meanwhile, in Congress, the House Oversight Committee recently held a hearing meant to give the inaccurate impression that unions are misusing dues money for political activity. Committee Chair Darrell Issa seems intent on hamstringing legitimate union political involvement at a time when corporate influence over politics is growing by leaps and bounds in the wake of the Citizens United ruling.

House Education and the Workforce Committee Chair John Kline, still furious over the Obama Administration’s recess appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, has warned that it may be necessary to “overhaul” the National Labor Relations Act (Labor Relations Week, 2/8/2012), undoubtedly in a way very different from labor’s unsuccessful push for an Employee Free Choice Act.

Overt anti-unionism is not limited to the maneuvers of conservative politicians. Major employers are taking their own steps to undermine collective bargaining. As the New York Times has pointed out, companies are making unprecedented use of lockouts, while strikes have become exceedingly rare. More than 1,300 workers at seven American Crystal Sugar plants in Minnesota, North Dakota and Iowa have been locked out for more than five months, while 1,000 union members at a Cooper Tire & Rubber plant in Findlay, Ohio have been in the same situation since late November. Across the border in Ontario, U.S.-based Caterpillar Inc. locked out 450 workers at a locomotive plant and then shut down the facility.

Other employers are trying to avoid strongholds of organized workers. For example, transnational grain exporter EGT has been trying to sidestep the Longshore union and use scab labor at its Longview port in Washington State.

Unions are also under assault in the bankruptcy courts, where companies are making strategic use of Chapter 11 filings. Hostess Brands, Inc., maker of Twinkies and Wonder Bread, is seeking court approval to rid itself of 296 collective bargaining agreements with 141 Teamster locals and 35 locals of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers union. At the same time, American Airlines is seeking to use the bankruptcy process to gut its union contracts through massive layoffs, termination of pension plans and decimation of health coverage.

Unions have been far from passive in responding to the onslaught, but high rates of unemployment make it difficult for them to maintain a very militant posture. After charging that Boeing was engaging in anti-union retaliation by expanding its Dreamliner production in South Carolina rather than in Washington State, the Machinists struck a deal in which the company was able to maintain its facility in the right-to-work state while agreeing to use union members in the Seattle area for another new aircraft. The CWA suspended its strike against Verizon last summer without getting a new contract but has kept up a campaign against the company’s demands for severe contract concessions. The UFCW is once again trying to organize workers at Wal-Mart, but the union is putting much of its energy into building an employee association not designed to engage in collective bargaining.

What passes for good news in labor circles is the recent announcement by the Labor Department that the number of U.S. workers represented by a union held steady in 2011 rather than declining. Union membership in the private sector as a whole also remained unchanged at 6.9 percent.

One of the many reasons to hope that the economic recovery builds some real momentum is that it would greatly improve the prospects for a revived labor movement capable of beating back the deunionization agenda and putting a brake on economic polarization.

A Cost of Doing Dirty Business

Thursday, February 9th, 2012

The Justice Department’s announcement of a $26 billion federal-state legal settlement with the country’s five largest mortgage servicers is filled with words like “unprecedented,” “landmark” and “historic.” It claims that the deal “provides substantial financial relief to homeowners and establishes significant new homeowner protections for the future.”

All of this hyperbolic language cannot disguise the fact that the settlement is just the latest in a series of efforts by the Obama Administration to give the appearance of being tough on corporate misconduct while actually letting the malefactors off easily. It is disappointing that so many state attorneys general gave into pressure to go along with the deal.

The $17 billion of the total that the servicers will be required to spend on direct relief (mortgage balance reductions and cash payments) will aid only a fraction of the homeowners victimized by abusive mortgage and foreclosure practices. Like earlier efforts by the Administration to deal with the housing debacle, it will do nothing for most of those who have been dispossessed in one of the most egregious cases of corporate lawlessness this country has ever seen.

The size of the settlement pool is meager in connection with the $200 billion multi-state tobacco settlement of 1998, for instance, and it will not present much of a financial burden for the five big servicers. Those companies—Bank of America, Citigroup, J.P. Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo and Ally Financial (formerly GMAC)—have combined assets of about $8 trillion. In other words, they are being asked to give up only about one-third of one percent of their total resources to resolve a crisis that has left so many with no resources at all.

Actually, the impact on the banks is even smaller than the absolute numbers would suggest. Many of the home loans that will be adjusted have already been written down in value by the financial institutions, so they are not really conceding anything. Meanwhile, those who have lost their homes to foreclosure will receive pitiful payments of about $2,000 each. There may be other pitfalls in the fine print of the settlement, which as of this writing has not yet been posted on the website created to publicize the deal.

The one good thing that can be said about the settlement is that, thanks to the insistence of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, it does not release the banks from culpability for all mortgage-related offenses, and it allows the state AGs to continue pursuing any criminal charges. This leaves the door open for cases such as the one taking place in Missouri, in which a foreclosure servicing company called DocX is being charged with forgery. Yet it remains to be seen how aggressive federal and state agencies will be in pursuing such cases if the settlement gives the impression that the book has been closed on foreclosure abuses.

That impression was reinforced by the announcements of bank regulators such as the Federal Reserve and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency that they have reached their own settlements with mortgage servicers.

Foreclosure abuses did not simply force people out of their homes in an unjust way. They exposed the imbalance of power between individuals and giant corporations when it comes to the application of the law. Capitalism is supposed to be based on the sanctity of contracts and the clear identification of ownership rights. Revelations that financial institutions were able to carry out foreclosures based on shoddy documentation, robo-signing and the like showed that, when it comes to the rule of law, not everyone is playing by the same rules.

Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan would have us believe that the settlement “forces the banks to clean up their acts and fix the problems uncovered during our investigations.” It can just as easily be said that the deal signals to large financial institutions that they can go on mistreating their customers and that the worst consequence would be modest financial penalties that can be written off as a cost of doing dirty business.

Facebook’s Dubious Social Mission

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012

The Blues Brothers claimed they were on a mission from God. Mark Zuckerberg, whose $17 billion fortune is about to become even larger thanks to the Facebook initial public offering, insists that his company is on a “social mission.”

In a letter accompanying the firm’s first substantive disclosure filing, Zuckerberg writes that “Facebook was not originally created to be a company.” Its mission, he says, is “to make the world more open and connected,” and he insists: “we don’t build services to make money; we make money to build better services.”

It’s difficult to take this high-mindedness seriously in connection with a company that may soon have a market value of $100 billion built on persuading millions of people to hand over vast amounts of personal information about themselves that Facebook— which has a total workforce of only 3,200—then sells to corporate marketers.  Data protection and privacy are generally considered good things; for Facebook, the possibility of more stringent laws in those areas is presented as a risk factor in its SEC filing.

In his social mission statement, Zuckerberg also writes: “We believe building tools to help people share can bring a more honest and transparent dialogue around government that could lead to more direct empowerment of people, more accountability for officials and better solutions to some of the biggest problems of our time.”

It’s interesting that Zuckerberg never refers to the need for more accountability on the part of Facebook or corporations in general. His letter gives the appearance of promoting corporate social responsibility but never actually does so. His attitude seems to be that Facebook’s only real obligation is to provide supposedly fabulous services, and that by itself will change the world.

It should thus come as no surprise that when it comes to dealing with governments and communities, Facebook is just as self-serving as any corporation not pretending to be on a social mission. This is demonstrated most clearly at its data centers.

These facilities, also known as server farms, are large collections of computers that power online networks. They use vast amounts of power and thus are located in rural areas with cheap electricity. Being highly automated, they create few jobs—yet Internet companies take advantage of the desperation of local officials for investment of any kind to obtain substantial economic development subsidies.

Facebook announced in January 2010 that it would build its first data center in central Oregon, choosing a location in the economically depressed town of Prineville that was part of an enterprise zone, thus making it eligible for property tax breaks for up to 15 years. The company later began expressing public concerns about how its intangible property would be taxed. In recent months it has been pressuring state legislators to restrict the ability of the state revenue department to assess data centers as utilities.

The company has even tried to intimidate the state by warning that, unless it got its way on taxes, the future of the Prineville facility—which employs about 50 people—would be in question. The revenue department now seems to have backed down. It is amazing to see how this purportedly enlightened company would throw its weight around to avoid pay a tax bill that under the worst case scenario would have cost it only $390,000 a year. (That figure, by the way, is about 1 percent of the $30.9 million that Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg received in total compensation last year, according to the company’s new SEC filing.)

Meanwhile, Facebook has negotiated a subsidy deal for its second data center, located in North Carolina’s Rutherford County. The facility, which was expected to create about 40 jobs, was made eligible for up to $11 million in county financial assistance, on top of state tax breaks for data centers enacted in 2010. The one good thing that can be said about these subsidies is that they are a lot less costly than the ridiculous sum of $260 million that North Carolina gave to Google in 2007 for its server farm project in the state.

In 2010 Facebook also got a $1.4 million grant from Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s Texas Enterprise Fund to help pay for the creation of a sales office in Austin.

Paying its fair share of state and local taxes without taking subsidies it doesn’t need and without bullying public officials would be a good way for Facebook to start acting like it really is on a mission other than enriching Mark Zuckerberg and a small number of other members of the 1%.