Archive for June, 2017

Exporting Hazards or Globalizing Regulation?

Thursday, June 29th, 2017

Americans may have initially felt a bit smug upon learning that the combustible material responsible for the Grenfell Tower disaster in London is largely banned in the United States. Perhaps our regulatory system is not as deficient as we thought.

That moral superiority went out the window when it came to light that the deadly cladding was purchased from an American-based company. Some of the outrage being exhibited toward public officials in Britain should also be aimed at Arconic, a company created from the break-up of the aluminum giant Alcoa. Arconic has announced that it will suspend sales of the cladding, known as Reynobond PE, for high-rises, but that does little good for the scores of people killed in the Grenfell fire or the thousands of others who have been forced to leave other apartment houses now found to contain the material.

Although most of the attention is on Arconic’s cladding and its role in spreading the conflagration, it turns out that fire itself was caused by another American product, a refrigerator made by Whirlpool under its Hotpoint brand. The appliance had a back made out of flammable plastic rather than the metal typically used in models sold in the United States. The London Fire Brigade had long lobbied, to no avail, to require new appliances to have fire-resistant backing.

The sale of banned products in offshore markets is, unfortunately, a longstanding practice among U.S-based multinational corporations. What’s unusual in this case is that the offshore market is a wealthy country such as Britain, whereas the dumping is normally done in poor countries.

As Russell Mokhiber points out in his 1988 book Corporate Crime and Violence, one of the earliest examples was that of the now defunct company A.H. Robins, which in the 1970s sold thousands of its Dalkon Shield intrauterine contraceptive devices in 42 countries even after it became apparent that thousands of U.S. women were experiencing severe and sometimes deadly ailments linked to the IUDs.

In 1972 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency prohibited most uses of the insecticide DDT, yet American producers continued to sell in foreign markets for years until most other countries adopted their own bans.

U.S. companies also continued to export dangerous products such as asbestos, flammable children’s pajamas and lead-based house paint after being barred from selling them in domestic markets.

These practices illustrate the perverse way that most large companies regard the regulation of their business. They are not willing to admit that restrictions are legitimate — even when imposed in the wake or injuries and deaths — and will adhere to them only to the extent absolutely necessary. If they can continue to sell products they have been told are harmful to some customers, they will do so.

This mindset seems to result from both a knee-jerk ideological opposition to all regulation and an amoral pursuit of profits. The persistence of corporate crime suggests that attempting to reform big business from within — the dubious promise of corporate social responsibility — is far from adequate. Just as markets have superseded borders, so must regulation be globalized.

The Crappy Coverage Solution

Thursday, June 22nd, 2017

If Congressional Republicans succeed in enacting either the Senate or the House bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act, they will have carried out one of the most brazen bait and switch moves in the history of U.S. public policy.

They and Donald Trump campaigned on the idea that Obamacare exchange premiums were rising uncontrollably, yet neither of the bills does anything to address that problem. They did not vow to repeal and replace Medicaid — Trump, in fact, promised not to touch it or Medicare or Social Security — yet that is what the bills would in effect do, both for the ACA’s Medicaid expansion and traditional Medicaid.

It’s been widely noted that the Republicans seem preoccupied with repealing the taxes the ACA imposed on high earners to help pay for the cost of expanding coverage. Yet less attention is being paid to the other giveaway in the bills: the repeal of the ACA’s employer mandate. This provision should be called the Wal-Mart Windfall Act, because it would allow large low-road employers to avoid ACA rules that oblige firms with 50 or more full-time employees to provide health coverage or else pay a penalty.

The mandate is far from draconian, yet it was at least a partial remedy for the situation in which millions of workers at big-box retailers, fast-food outlets and similar workplaces were not provided affordable coverage and were encouraged to enroll in programs such as Medicaid. Now the Republicans seek to remove any obligation on the part of employers to provide coverage while also undermining the social safety net alternative.

To the extent that the Republicans have a solution to the healthcare problem it is this: bring back junk insurance. It is often forgotten that the ACA was designed not just to address the problem of the uninsured but also the underinsured.

Starting in the 1990s, large insurers such as Aetna began selling bare-bones individual policies to low-income individuals who did not get employer coverage and could not qualify for Medicaid. These policies had relatively low premiums but sky-high deductibles and numerous exclusions. In cases of a serious accident or illness, they were all but worthless. The ACA put an end to this predatory market by establishing a set of essential benefits that all plans would have to include.

Republicans don’t like to admit that they are promoting a return to crappy coverage, so they dress up their arguments with misleading phrases such as “patient-centered reforms.” Many of them also realized that the idea of lowering standards directly was not very popular, so they have returned to their favorite panacea of giving states more flexibility. This allows them to pretend they are not scrapping essential benefits while knowing that many governors and state legislatures would be all too willing to do so if given the opportunity.

The cynicism of Congressional Republicans is matched by that of the big insurance companies, for whom the ACA was tailored and are now doing nothing to defend the law. Instead, they still seem to be sulking about the two anti-competitive mergers (Aetna-Humana and Anthem-Cigna) that were opposed by Obama Administration and shot down in the courts. Having seen their oligopolistic dreams go up in smoke, they now seem to want to give up the ACA market in favor of selling bare-bones policies.

It is unclear whether the dystopian vision of the ACA opponents will come to pass, but in the meantime the wellbeing of millions of Americans is being unnecessarily endangered.

Documenting NLRB Back Pay Awards

Wednesday, June 14th, 2017

Massey Energy is notorious for the 2010 Upper Big Branch disaster that killed 29 workers at a coal mine with a long history of safety violations. Yet Massey, now owned by Alpha Natural Resources, has another dubious distinction: it was responsible for the largest back pay award mandated by the National Labor Relations Board in recent years.

Massey paid out $22.8 million after the Board found it had committed unfair labor practices when it refused to recognize the United Mine Workers after it purchased a unionized West Virginia mining operation (separate from Upper Big Branch) and declined to continue the employment of most of the union members there.

The information about Massey’s payment emerges from the latest expansion my colleagues and I at the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First have made to the Violation Tracker database. We obtained a list of some 3,000 back pay awards through a Freedom of Information Act request to the NLRB. The awards, covering the period since the agency adopted its new NxGen database system in 2011, total more than $284 million.

This is not the complete list of unfair labor practice back pay cases during the period. The NLRB excluded from its FOIA response what are known as non-Board settlements — those reached by the parties before the NLRB has ruled on the matter. The Board said some of the awards are confidential, and since its system could not easily identify which those were, it left out all the non-Board settlements.

Among the other biggest NLRB back pay awards since 2010 are: $16.2 million paid by Midwest Generation (a subsidiary of NRG Energy), $10.7 million paid by Delphi Packard Electric (part of Delphi Automotive), $10.3 million paid by Fluor-Daniel (a unit of the engineering company Fluor), and $10 million paid by Momentive Performance Materials.

The NLRB dataset is an important addition to Violation Tracker. The Board issues press releases about only a small number of back pay awards and does not make data about other awards easily retrievable in the case information on its website. This appears to be the first time extensive NLRB back-pay award data is readily available online.

It should be noted, however, that information on back pay awards for the dozen years preceding 2011 is buried in a large NLRB dataset posted on Data.gov. My colleagues and I extracted the data. The entries for 2010 (the current starting point for Violation Tracker) are part of the new update. Earlier entries will be included in an expansion of the entire database back to 2000 that will be posted in a few months.

Those earlier entries contain some back pay awards much larger than those cited above, including $130 million paid by Lucent Technologies and Avaya Inc., and $97 million paid by CF&I Steel.

Along with the NLRB data, Violation Tracker has also been updated with recent entries from the more than 40 federal regulatory agencies already covered by the website.

Also new on the site are links on the parent-company summary pages to the pages for those companies in the Project On Government Oversight’s Federal Contractor Misconduct Database and in the list of the 100 largest federal contractors on POGO’s FedSpending site.

Violation Tracker now contains more than 161,000 entries with total penalties of more than $324 billion,  the vast majority of which is connected to some 2,460 large parent companies.

It’s good to see unfair labor practice culprits take their place alongside corporate violators of environmental, health and safety, consumer protection and other laws that protect workers and the public.

The Other Trump Collusion Scandal

Tuesday, June 6th, 2017

For months the news has been filled with reports of suspicious meetings between Trump associates and Russian officials. Another category of meetings also deserves closer scrutiny: the encounters between Trump himself and top executives of scores of major corporations since Election Day. What do these companies want from the new administration?

During the presidential campaign, Trump often hinted that he would be tough on corporate misconduct — especially the offshoring of jobs — and this won him a significant number of votes. After taking office, however, much of the economic populism has disappeared in favor of a shamelessly pro-corporate approach, especially when it comes to regulation. Big business has put aside whatever misgivings it had about Trump and now seeks favors from him.

There is always a fine line between deregulation and the encouragement of corporate crime and misconduct. We should be concerned about the latter, given the roster of executives who have made pilgrimages to the White House.

Public Citizen has just published a report looking at the track record of the roughly 120 companies whose executives have met publicly with Trump since November 8 and finds that many of them “are far from upstanding corporate citizens.”

Using data from Violation Tracker (which I and my colleagues produce at the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First), Public Citizen finds that more than 100 of the visitors were from companies that appear in the database as having paid a federal fine or settlement since the beginning of 2010.

In its tally of these penalties, which includes those associated with companies such as Goldman Sachs and Exxon Mobil whose executives were brought right into the administration, Public Citizen finds that the total is about $90 billion.

At the top of the list are companies from the two sectors that have been at the forefront of the corporate crime wave of recent years: banks and automakers. JPMorgan Chase, with penalties of almost $29 billion, is in first place. Also in the top dozen are Citigroup ($15 billion), Goldman Sachs ($9 billion), HSBC ($4 billion) and BNY Mellon ($741 million). Volkswagen, still embroiled in the emissions cheating scandal, has the second highest penalty total ($19 billion). Two other automakers make the dirty dozen: Toyota ($1.3 billion) and General Motors ($936 million).

The rest of the dirty dozen are companies from another notorious industry: pharmaceuticals. These include Johnson & Johnson ($2.5 billion),  Merck ($957 million), Novartis ($938 million) and Amgen ($786 million).

All these companies have a lot to gain from a relaxation of federal oversight of their operations. While it remains unclear whether the Trump campaign used its meetings with Russian officials to plan election collusion, there is no doubt that the administration has been using its meetings with corporate executives to plan regulatory rollbacks that will have disastrous financial, safety and health consequences.

The Emissions Scandal Widens

Thursday, June 1st, 2017

Big business would have us believe that it is on the side of the angels when it comes to the Paris climate agreement. A group of large companies just published full-page ads in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal urging (unsuccessfully, it turned out) President Trump to remain in the accord.

Not included in the list of blue chip signatories were the big auto producers, which may reflect the realization among those companies that it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to present themselves as defenders of the environment.

On the contrary, recent developments could cause them to be regarded as among the worst environmental criminals. That’s because evidence is growing that the kind of emissions cheating associated with Volkswagen is more pervasive in the industry.

Recently, the Justice Department, acting on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency, filed a civil complaint against Fiat Chrysler alleging that the company produced more than 100,000 diesel vehicles with systems designed to evade federal emission standards. As a result, those vehicles end up producing pollutants (especially oxides of nitrogen or NOx) well above the acceptable levels set by EPA. In its announcement of the case, DOJ noted: “NOx pollution contributes to the formation of harmful smog and soot, exposure to which is linked to a number of respiratory- and cardiovascular-related health effects as well as premature death.” This is a polite way of accusing the company of homicide.

Around the same time, a class action lawsuit was filed against General Motors accusing the company of programming some of its heavy-duty pickup trucks to cheat on diesel emissions tests.

The two companies are responding differently. GM is denying the allegations, calling them “baseless” and vowing to defend itself “vigorously.” Fiat Chrysler tried to ward off the federal lawsuit by promising to modify the vehicles. It expressed disappointment at the DOJ filing but is still vowing to work with regulators to resolve the issue. Fiat Chrysler is also maintaining that its systems are different from those used by Volkswagen, which has had to pay out billions in settlements and criminal fines; several of its executives are facing individual criminal charges.

Whether the response involves stonewalling, remediation or splitting hairs, the emergence of these new cases turns the emissions scandal from one involving a single rogue corporation to a pattern of misconduct that may turn out to be standard practice throughout the auto sector.

This in turn raises broader issues about deregulation. The Trump Administration and its Republican allies in Congress try to depict corporations as helpless victims of regulatory overreach in need of relief. What the widening emissions scandal shows is that large companies are often instead flagrantly violating the rules and in doing so are putting public health at risk. Rather than relaxing regulation, policymakers should be intensifying oversight to make it harder for cheating to occur.

The car industry would be a good place to start. Misconduct among automakers dates back decades. It was GM’s resistance to safety improvements that inspired Ralph Nader to launch the modern public interest movement in the 1960’s, and it was Ford’s negligence in the deadly Pinto scandal of the 1970s that gave new meaning to corporate greed and irresponsibility. It’s time for these companies to clean up their act once and for all.