Archive for August, 2017

Corporate America Doesn’t Qualify for Moral Leadership Either

Thursday, August 17th, 2017

It may turn out that Donald Trump’s greatest contribution to American business is allowing the chief executives of tainted corporations to take a morally superior posture toward a presidency that seems to be completely devoid of principle. Their brands are boosted as his becomes increasingly toxic.

It is a good thing that big business is taking steps to separate itself from Trump. The collapse of the two advisory councils is not only a rebuke to Trump’s offensive comments on the events in Charlottesville but also an overdue retreat from entities that were set up mainly to foster the illusion that this administration is taking serious steps to reform the economy.

Yet it is dismaying that the moral vacuum created by Trump is being filled by the likes of Walmart chief executive Douglas McMillon, who got himself featured on the front page of the New York Times for a statement criticizing Trump.

For years the giant retailer was a national symbol of discriminatory practices. In 2009 it had to pay $17.5 million to settle a lawsuit alleging that it discriminated against African-Americans in the recruitment and hiring of truck drivers. The company was also widely accusing of gender discrimination. In 2010 the company was required to pay $11.7 million to settle a case brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and it was facing potential damages in the billions from a class action suit brought on behalf of more than 1 million female employees until the Supreme Court came to its rescue and threw out the case for what amounted to technical reasons.

In addition to discrimination, Walmart has been at the center of countless controversies involved wage theft, union-busting, tax avoidance, bribery and much more.

After Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier led the way among business critics of Trump’s embrace of white nationalism, the president struck back with a tweet referring to “ripoff drug prices.” While Trump was just being vindictive, it’s true that Merck’s reputation is far from untarnished.

In 2011 the drugmaker agreed to pay a $321 million criminal fine and a $628 million civil settlement to resolve allegations that it illegally promoted and marketed the painkiller Vioxx. This came after Merck had to remove the drug from the market in the wake of reports that the company for years covered up evidence of serious safety issues surrounding its blockbuster product. This is just one of a long list of its cases involving illegal marketing, overbilling, false claims and anti-competitive practices.

Another of the CEOs who spoke out in response to Trump’s comments was JPMorgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon. Earlier this year, the bank had to pay $53 million to settle a case brought by the U.S. Attorney in Manhattan accusing it of engaging in discrimination on the basis of race and national origin in its mortgage business.

JPMorgan Chase was one of the parties that helped bring about the financial collapse of a decade ago, and in 2013 it agreed to a $13 billion settlement of federal and state allegations relating to the packaging and sale of toxic mortgage-backed securities.

In 2015 JPMorgan had to pay a $550 million criminal fine to resolve federal charges that it and other large banks conspired to manipulate foreign exchange markets. There are many more entries in the corporate rap sheet of this company, which since the beginning of 2010 has had to pay out more than $28 billion in fines and settlements.

It would be difficult to find any members of the disbanded advisory councils whose companies have not engaged in serious misconduct of one sort or another.

Such is the peril of looking for paradigms of virtue in the business world. Corporate executives should, along with many others, speak out against Trump’s reprehensible comments, but they cannot lay claim to moral leadership.

Foreign Investment and America First

Thursday, August 10th, 2017

Donald Trump has built an image as a champion of workers by fomenting fear of immigrants. Get rid of the foreign-born, he vows, and native workers will prosper.

What’s odd is that this misguided notion is coupled with an embrace of foreign corporations. The administration’s America First economic policy relies to a substantial degree on promoting investment from abroad.

Many of Trump’s supposed job creation achievements have involved Asian companies. Soon after the election Trump claimed that Japan’s SoftBank had promised to invest $50 billion in the United States and create 50,000 jobs. Soon thereafter, Trump and Chinese mogul Jack Ma vowed that the latter’s Alibaba e-commerce empire would create 1 million U.S. jobs. In June, Samsung said it would open an appliance plant in South Carolina.

More recently, Japanese automakers Toyota and Mazda said they would jointly build a $1.6 billion U.S. assembly plant with 4,000 jobs. With the blessing of the White House, Taiwan’s Foxconn announced plans for a $10 billion flat-screen plant in Wisconsin (probably in the Congressional district of Speaker Paul Ryan) that would purportedly employ up to 13,000 people. Foxconn is reported to be considering another plant in Michigan.

While these announcements are presented as a boon to American workers, there are reasons to be cautious. Companies such as Foxconn have made big promises in the U.S. before and failed to deliver. It and SoftBank and Alibaba may be simply currying favor with Trump and will be unable to make good on their extravagant job-creation projections. Their main aim may be to discourage some of Trump’s more aggressive protectionist tendencies.

And even if Foxconn’s projects do materialize this time, there are questions about the quality of the jobs it may create. Foxconn has a long reputation for abusive labor practices in China, where it has been a leading contractor for Apple.

Concerns about the U.S. labor practices of foreign companies are not just a matter of conjecture. In fact, while Foxconn’s plans have been all over the news, less coverage was given to what happened at the Nissan assembly plant in Canton, Mississippi: an organizing drive by the United Auto Workers was soundly defeated, with the union blaming the outcome on an aggressive management campaign of scare tactics, intimidation and misinformation.

What happened in Canton is nothing new. For the past three decades, Asian and European automakers have been opening U.S. assembly plants, focusing on states with low union density and a political climate hostile to labor organizing. Taking advantage of their non-union status, they have made excessive use of contingent labor and weakened the ability of workers to act collectively to improve their conditions.

Trump, of course, launched no tweet storms against Nissan and expressed no support for the workers in Canton. On the contrary, for a supposedly populist president, Trump has promoted a series of anti-worker policies. These include moves to shift the National Labor Relations Board in a pro-employer direction, reverse the overtime pay reforms adopted by the Obama Labor Department and weaken workplace safety and health rules.

In Trump’s worldview, workers are supposed to express solidarity not with each other but rather with their employers and their President. That’s a strange sort of populism.

Pitting Jobs Against the Environment Again

Thursday, August 3rd, 2017

Jobs versus the environment: The notion that the interests of workers were inherently anti-ecological was widely held in the 1980s. Much of the world now accepts that employment and environmental protection can go hand in hand, but the Trump Administration is trying hard to turn back the clock. Dismantling safeguards is presented as the key to job creation.

That same misguided approach can be seen in the terms of the deal that Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker is offering the Taiwanese electronics firm Foxconn in exchange for a commitment to build a $10 billion flat-screen plant that will supposedly create up to 13,000 jobs.

The plan — which Walker announced at the White House along with Trump, Vice President Pence and  Speaker Paul Ryan, whose district is expected to be the site of the facility — is generating a great deal of controversy in Wisconsin over the $3 billion subsidy package the governor wants to offer the company.

Yet those special tax breaks are not the only incentive being dangled in front of Foxconn. The draft bill being considered by the state legislature would also free the company from having to file an environmental impact statement and exempt it from a variety of state environmental rules. It would also ease regulations for utilities that build facilities inside the special zone that would be created for Foxconn.

Environmental groups in the Badger State are sounding the alarm, but there is no indication that their concerns are having much of an impact on Walker, who has said that critics of the Foxconn deal can go “suck lemons.”

The special regulatory breaks Wisconsin has cooked up would be troubling in any project, but they are especially worrisome in this deal, given the company involved. It’s widely known that Foxconn has a lousy record on labor rights in Asia, but it also has a troubled history when it comes to the environment.

In 2011 a coalition of Chinese environmental groups published a report listing Foxconn as one of several Apple contractors whose operations were causing serious environmental damage. Two years later, the watchdogs released a film with footage they said showed Foxconn releasing water with high levels of heavy metals into a river feeding Shanghai’s Huangpu River.

Foxconn was also said to be lax when it came to workplace safety. An explosion at its iPad plant in Chengdu that killed three workers and injured 15 others was attributed to the accumulation of combustible dust.

As with its record of abusive labor practices, Foxconn has claimed that it has cleaned up its act on environmental matters. Maybe so, but any plant of the size that the company is promising will have an enormous impact on water and air quality in Wisconsin. Rather than weakening environmental safeguards, the state should be tightening them for this project.

Walker, who has a terrible track record on environmental issues, may be treating the Foxconn deal as an experiment in deregulation. Letting Walker — and by extension Trump, Pence and Ryan — use the Foxconn deal to bring back the bad old days of jobs-versus-the-environment would do no one any good.