Archive for June, 2018

The Skullduggery Continues

Thursday, June 28th, 2018

Donald Trump seems to live in a world in which there is global trade but no foreign direct investment. He recently denounced BMW imports at a South Carolina rally while ignoring the German automaker’s production facility a short distance away in Spartanburg, which has been in operation since 1994.

The president also seems to be less than fully informed when it comes to the foreign operations of U.S. corporations. He has been berating Harley-Davidson for announcing plans to shift some production to Europe to circumvent the tariffs the EU is imposing on selected American products in response to Trump’s trade policies. In his tweet tirade, Trump demand that Harleys “never be built in another country—never.”

In fact, Harley already has offshore production facilities. One of those is in India, which was originally announced in connection with President Obama’s November 2010 trip to that country to promote U.S. commercial interests. Republicans denounced the trip, not because of job offshoring but rather because of exaggerated reports of the cost of the delegation.

Harley initially used the Indian operation to assemble bikes shipped in knocked-down form from U.S. plants, but later it began using locally produced components. In 2012 Harley outsourced much of its IT work to the Indian company Infosys, some of whose employees on the account worked in the U.S. There were reports in 2014 that Harley IT workers were being asked to train Infosys employees on H-1B visas who were replacing them.

The company also has an assembly facility in Brazil and a manufacturing plant in Australia that produces high-finish wheels. In its 10-K filing Harley states: “The motorcycles assembled at the Company’s international facilities have the same authentic look, sound, feel and quality of a motorcycle manufactured by the Company’s U.S. facilities.” Moreover, Harley announced earlier this year that it is shifting some production from a plant in Kansas City to one in Thailand.

The Harley situation is just the latest in a series of tiffs between Trump and large corporations in which it is difficult to support either side. Harley certainly needed to be called out for engaging in more and more offshore outsourcing while continuing to promote an all-American image.

Trump’s criticism of the company, however, is far from coherent. It seems to be based mostly on his feeling that he was personally betrayed by a firm that he touted as a symbol of American greatness. Trump seems to have picked a fight with Harley in the same way he has gone after other companies, starting with Carrier soon after his election. He has done so mainly to burnish has own tough-guy image while in the end failing to extract any real concessions. The same goes for is supposed battles with pharmaceutical producers, aerospace manufacturers, automakers and others.

Trump’s objective is to give the impression he is taking a hard line against big business, while he is actually catering to every desire of corporate America when it comes to regulation and taxes. It is the flip side of his posture toward workers, in which he pretends to be their defender but is in reality undermining employment safeguards and labor rights. How long can the skullduggery continue?

Bayer and Monsanto: Another Dubious Chemical Industry Marriage

Thursday, June 21st, 2018

If the chemical industry spent as much time on product safety as it does on corporate restructuring, the world would be a healthier place. In 2015 DuPont spun off a bunch of its operations with tainted environmental and safety records into a new company called Chemours. Then DuPont engineered a merger with its longtime rival Dow Chemical, which had its own checkered history, to form DowDuPont. The combined company is now making more structural adjustments.

More changes are in the works in connection with the recently completed merger of German chemical giant Bayer and Monsanto. This is another case of a marriage between two highly controversial corporations.

Bayer was one of the German companies that combined in the 1920s to form IG Farben, which would go on to use slave labor during the Nazi period and was then split up after the Second World War. The largest of the resulting companies were Bayer, BASF and Hoechst (now part of Sanofi).

As Bayer has stepped up its U.S. involvement over the past two decades it has gotten embroiled in one scandal after another. In 1997 one of its subsidiaries based in New Jersey pled guilty to criminal price-fixing and had to pay a $50 million fine. In 2000 Bayer had to pay $14 million to the federal government and the states to settle allegations that it inflated prices on drugs sold to the Medicaid program. In 2001 it was accused of price-gouging on the antibiotic Cipro, which was then in high demand because of the anthrax scare. It later had to pay $257 million to settle a federal lawsuit on Cipro overcharging.

In 2003 documents emerged suggesting that Bayer was aware of serious safety problems with its cholesterol drug Baycol long before the medication was withdrawn from the market. In 2004 Bayer had to pay a $66 million fine in another criminal price-fixing case. A 2008 explosion at a Bayer pesticide plant in West Virginia that killed two workers led to regulatory penalties including a $5.6 million settlement with the EPA. A report found that management deficiencies played a significant role in creating the conditions that caused the explosion. Environmental and workplace safety fines have continued in recent years.

Monsanto, now absorbed into Bayer, was long one of the most hated corporations in the United States, due to the hardball tactics its employed in marketing genetically modified seeds and Roundup herbicides to farmers. It brought aggressive lawsuits against farmers accused of violating its patents. The company somehow managed to avoid antitrust charges, but in 2016 it was fined $80 million by the Securities and Exchange Commission for accounting violations relating to Roundup.

Bayer’s pursuit of Monsanto is part of its effort to brand itself as a life sciences company rather than merely a chemical producer. Its three main divisions are Crop Science, Pharmaceuticals and Consumer Health (the latter being what used to be known as over-the-counter medications such as aspirin, which Bayer is credited with inventing).

Of these, the most problematic is crop science. Bayer, along with DowDuPont and ChemChina (which bought Syngenta), increasingly dominate world markets for seeds, pesticides and related agribusiness products, giving them unprecedented control over the global food supply. This may give us a headache no amount of aspirin can relieve.

Trump’s War on Workers

Thursday, June 14th, 2018

Donald Trump’s blue-collar supporters may like what they are seeing on Fox News, but when they arrive at work the MAGA revolution is nowhere to be found. Far from empowering labor, the Trump Administration’s employment policies are heavily skewed toward management.

The aspect of this I’ve been focusing on lately are wage and hour issues. Recently my colleagues and I at the Corporate Research Project and Jobs With Justice published Grand Theft Paycheck, a detailed look at wage theft by large corporations. We found that major employers in a wide range of industries continue to pay out large sums in collective action lawsuits, which indicates that they continue to violate the Fair Labor Standards Act by compelling employees to do off-the-clock work and denying them proper overtime pay.

Such litigation may soon be a thing of the past. There are signs that collective actions are failing in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Epic Systems ruling, written by Trump nominee Neil Gorsuch, affirming the right of employers to use mandatory arbitration to block group lawsuits. For example, a federal judge in California told a group of Domino’s Pizza drivers that they had to use arbitration rather than litigation to resolve their claims against franchise owners.

At the same time, instead of intensifying enforcement by the Wage and Hour Division, Trump’s Labor Department is promoting a new approach based on corporate self-audits and fewer fines. Allowing employers to operate on the honor system is just another way of weakening enforcement.

A new report from the National Employment Law Project shows that the Trump DOL is also reducing enforcement of workplace safety and health rules.  NELP found that OSHA enforcement activity in FY2017 was down compared to the previous year. The decline was even more pronounced during the first five months of FY2018, when the number of enforcement units (the measure used by OSHA) fell by more than 7 percent. This trend is likely to worsen, since NELP notes that the number of OSHA inspectors has been declining.

Federal workers are facing an assault of their own. Trump recently announced plans to overhaul rules affecting more than two million employees, making it easier to discipline and fire them. The move also includes an attack on federal unions through stricter limits on the amount of time grievance officers and other activists can spend on union activity during working hours.

The next blow will come in the Supreme Court, which is expected to issue a decision soon in the Janus case that blocks the ability of public sector unions to collect fees from employees who decline to join but still benefit from collective bargaining agreements and other protections negotiated by those unions. Such a ruling could have a devastating financial impact on public unions.

As bad as all this sounds, it could boomerang on Trump and his corporate allies. More workers may follow the example of the teacher wildcat strikes and put their faith in self-organization rather than a demagogue.

Grand Theft Paycheck

Tuesday, June 5th, 2018

For the past two decades, Walmart has repeatedly been accused of compelling workers to perform certain tasks off the clock and has paid numerous fines for those practices. It is often suggested that the retailer is an anomaly, acting more like a fly-by-night sweatshop than a corporate giant.

I recently completed a research project showing that, on the contrary, off-the-clock work, denial of overtime pay through misclassification and other forms of wage theft are pervasive in American big business. After digging through court records for much of the past year, I found more than 1,200 successful wage and hour lawsuits against hundreds of the country’s largest employers. These collective action suits have yielded some $8.8 billion in settlements and verdicts in the period since 2000. The same group of corporations have paid around $400 million in fines to the U.S. Department of Labor.

These findings are contained in Grand Theft Paycheck, a report just published by the Corporate Research Project of Good Jobs First and the Jobs With Justice Education Fund. The data has also been incorporated into Violation Tracker.

Among the dozen most penalized corporations, Walmart, with $1.4 billion in total settlements and fines, is the only retailer. Second is FedEx with $502 million. Half of the top dozen are banks and insurance companies, including Bank of America ($381 million); Wells Fargo ($205 million); JPMorgan Chase ($160 million); and State Farm Insurance ($140 million). The top 25 also include prominent companies in sectors not typically associated with wage theft, including telecommunications (AT&T); information technology (Microsoft and Oracle); pharmaceuticals (Novartis); and investment services (Morgan Stanley and UBS).

Due to Walmart, retailing is the industry with the highest aggregate penalties ($2.7 billion) imposed on large companies. It is followed by financial services ($1.4 billion); freight and logistics ($828 million); business services ($611 million); insurance ($557 million); miscellaneous services ($486 million); healthcare services ($417 million); restaurants and foodservice ($397 million); information technology ($335 million); and food and beverage products ($315 million).

More than 100 large corporations have paid penalties in three or more collective action lawsuits. Bank of America and its subsidiaries did so two dozen times.

Although there are fluctuations from year to year, the lawsuit penalty total reached a high of $1.3 billion in 2016. The tally in 2017 was $732 million, the fourth-largest yearly total.

There have been seven individual settlements in excess of $100 million, including the $640 million omnibus settlement by Walmart of more than 60 lawsuits and two FedEx settlements each in excess of $200 million. Since collective actions are usually settled before trial, there are few verdicts. But Walmart leads in that category too, with a judgment of $242 million. It has also paid the largest single fine: $33 million to the U.S. Labor Department.

The occupations represented in wage theft lawsuits range from low-wage jobs such as cashiers, cooks and security guards to higher-paid positions such as package delivery drivers, nurses, pharmaceutical sales representatives, and financial advisors.

The totals and rankings are based on penalties that were publicly disclosed, though the report documents 127 cases involving 89 large companies that petitioned courts to keep the details of their wage theft settlements confidential. AT&T, Home Depot, Verizon Communications, Comcast, Lowe’s and Best Buy each had multiple sealed settlements.

Of the ten most penalized industries, all but two—freight and information technology—employ large numbers of women, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Several of these industries—especially business services, insurance and healthcare services—are predominantly female. In about half of these top ten industries, the percentage of Black and Latino workers is greater than in the workforce as a whole. For example, Black workers account for about 12 percent of the overall workforce but 20 percent of the labor force in business support services and 17 percent in freight. Latino workers account for about 17 percent of the overall workforce but about 25 percent in restaurants and foodservice and 29 percent in food and beverage production.

Many companies accused of wage theft are highly profitable. Among the dozen most penalized corporations, all but two had an annual net income of more than $2 billion in their most recent fiscal year. AT&T, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo each had more than $20 billion in profits. These companies pay their chief executives generous salaries and bonuses. CEOs at AT&T, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Walmart receive annual compensation of more than $20 million each.

Companies such as these can afford to pay their workers properly. It is time for Corporate America to remove wage theft from its business model.