Americans love entrepreneurship, and no form of it is more celebrated than the family business. Most of us distrust big banks and giant corporations, but who doesn’t have warm feelings about mom and pop companies or family farms? These are the types of firms that politicians of all stripes want to shower with tax breaks and other forms of government assistance.
The problem is that family enterprises, like pet alligators, may start out as small and cuddly but can grow into large and dangerous monsters. We’ve seen two examples of this recently in connection with the family-owned oil company Koch Industries and the egg empire controlled by the DeCoster Family.
Koch Industries and its principals David and Charles Koch are the subject of a detailed article in The New Yorker by Jane Mayer. Much of the information in the piece has previously come out in blogs, websites and muckraking reports by environment groups, but she does a good job of consolidating those revelations and presenting them in a prestigious outlet.
Mayer describes how the Kochs, who are worth billions, have for decades used their fortune to bankroll a substantial portion of rightwing activism and are currently the big money behind groups such as Americans for Prosperity that are helping coordinate the purportedly grassroots Tea Party movement. What makes the Kochs especially insidious is that they use the guise of philanthropy to fund organizations promoting policy positions – environmental deregulation and global warming denial – that directly serve the Koch corporate interests, which include some of the country’s most polluting and greenhouse-gas-generating operations. The Kochs also contribute heavily to mainstream philanthropic causes such as the Metropolitan Opera and the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center to win influential allies and gain respectability.
The DeCosters, whose egg business is at the center of the current salmonella outbreak, are not in the same social circles as the Kochs, but they have an even more egregious record of business misconduct. Hiding behind deceptively modest company names such as Wright County Egg, the family, led by Jack DeCoster, has risen to the top of the egg business while running afoul of a wide range of state and federal regulations.
As journalists such as Alec MacGillis of the Washington Post have recounted, the DeCosters have paid millions of dollars in fines for violating environmental regulations (manure spills), workplace health and safety rules (workers forced to handle manure and dead chickens with their bare hands), immigration laws (widespread employment of undocumented workers), animal protection regulations (hens twirled by their necks, kicked into manure pits to drown and subjected to other forms of cruelty), wage and hour standards (failure to pay overtime), and sex discrimination laws (female workers from Mexico molested by supervisors).
Their lawlessness dates back decades. A November 11, 1979 article in the Washington Post about Jack DeCoster’s plan to expand from his original base in Maine to the Eastern Shore of Maryland states that he was leaving behind “disputes over child labor, union organizing drives and citations for safety violations.” In 1988 the Maryland operation was barred from selling its eggs in New York State after an outbreak of salmonella. In 1996 the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the DeCosters $3.6 million for making its employees toil in filth. Then-Labor Secretary Robert Reich said conditions were “as dangerous and oppressive as any sweatshop we have seen.”
The DeCosters were notorious enough to be featured in a 1999 report by the Sierra Club called Corporate Hogs at the Public Trough. The title referred to the fact that concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) such as those operated by the DeCosters were receiving substantial federal subsidies despite their dismal regulatory track record.
Articles about Jack DeCoster invariably describe him as self-made and hard-working. “Jack doesn’t fish, he doesn’t hunt, he doesn’t go to nightclubs,” a farmer in Maine told the New York Times in 1996. “He does business — 18 hours a day.” He was recently described as a “born-again Baptist who has contributed significant amounts of money to rebuild churches in Maine and in Iowa.”
Like the Kochs, DeCoster apparently thinks that some philanthropic gestures will wipe away a multitude of business transgressions. Yet no amount of charitable giving can change the fact that these men grew rich by disregarding the well-being of workers, consumers and the earth. Such are the family values of these family businessmen.