Archive for October, 2018

Exxon Mobil Called to Account

Thursday, October 25th, 2018

Climate crisis denial has become an article of faith for rightwing politicians, including the current occupation of the Oval Office, but the primary culprits are the fossil fuel corporations that for decades covered up and obfuscated the truth about greenhouse gases. Now one of those corporations may finally pay a steep penalty for its decades of deception.

After a three-year investigation, the Office of the Attorney General of New York State has filed a sweeping lawsuit against Exxon Mobil for defrauding investors about its accounting practices relating to the risks of climate change.

There’s an irony about the terms of the lawsuit. Exxon is not being sued for its contribution to global warming nor its attempts to downplay the severity of the problem. Instead, its alleged offense was to mislead investors into thinking that it was factoring in the likelihood of increasingly stringent regulation of emissions for its business planning and investment decisions. Instead, as AG Barbara Underwood (photo) stated, “Exxon built a facade to deceive investors into believing that the company was managing the risks of climate change regulation to its business when, in fact, it was intentionally and systematically underestimating or ignoring them, contrary to its public representations.”

In other words, the lawsuit is accusing the company of failing to account for potential liabilities such as exactly the kind of litigation being brought. Shareholders probably benefited from Exxon’s past deception, but the suit is arguing that the company did not prepare them for the emerging new reality.

Underwood alleges that Exxon essentially kept two sets of books when accounting for the impact of climate change – one for public consumption that included a proxy cost for carbon and another for internal purposes that greatly reduced that expected cost or eliminated it entirely.

Exxon is still engaged in duplicity. On the one hand, it has been trying to present itself in recent times as a corporate champion of climate responsibility through steps such as funding a carbon tax initiative. Yet its response to the Underwood lawsuit was classic Exxon. A spokesperson said the lawsuit contained “baseless allegations” that are “a product of closed-door lobbying by special interests, political opportunism and the attorney general’s inability to admit that a three-year investigation has uncovered no wrongdoing.”

What Exxon is conveniently ignoring is that the lawsuit was the culmination not only of the AG’s investigation but also detailed research into Exxon’s history of climate denial by the Exxpose Exxon Campaign, Inside Climate News and Harvard University researchers Naomi Oreskes and Geoffrey Supran. The latter included a close analysis of nearly 200 company statements dating back to 1977.

Exxon’s track record of downplaying hazards matches that of Big Tobacco and the asbestos industry. Legal liabilities pushed most of the asbestos industry into bankruptcy and disintegration, while the cigarette giants remained prosperous even after paying out billions in settlements. It remains to be seen which fate awaits Exxon and the rest of the fossil fuel industry.

A Not-So-Fond Farewell to Sears

Thursday, October 18th, 2018

The bankruptcy filing, store closings and general uncertainty surrounding the future of Sears have prompted a spate of nostalgic business-page articles about the history of the once dominant retailer. Whether or not the chain survives, it is important not to sugarcoat its past.

Sears, along with Montgomery Ward, brought the joys of mass-produced merchandise to rural America. Yet its mail-order operations undermined local merchants and initiated the long-term decline of traditional main street life. Sears’ hyper-efficient system for fulfilling mail orders, using conveyor belts and pneumatic tubes, was said to have helped inspire Henry Ford’s automobile assembly line with its mixed blessings.

Sears began opening retail stores in the 1920s, and in the postwar period it played a major role in automobile-focused suburbanization and its attendant social and environmental impacts. The company would later extract a $242 million subsidy package to relocate its headquarters from downtown Chicago to exurban Hoffman Estates after threatening to move out of state.

In the 1980s Sears was one of the prime examples of wrong-headed diversification as it acquired the Dean Witter brokerage house and the Coldwell Banker chain of real estate agencies, and then introduced the Discover credit card. During the 1990s Sears had to dispose of all those businesses, along with its Allstate insurance operation.

In 2005 Sears suffered the indignity of being combined with Kmart by private equity operator Edward Lampert, who believed he could solve the longstanding problems of the two chains but instead ended up simply stretching out their death spiral.

Sears had long resisted unionization of its stores, but it adopted paternalistic practices such as profit-sharing that partly substituted for collective bargaining. During the Lampert era there has been little paternalism. Instead, workers at Sears and Kmart have frequently found themselves the victims of abusive labor practices.

Since 2007 the two chains have been implicated in nine collective action wage theft lawsuits and have had to pay out more than $56 million in settlements and damages – more than any other broadline retailer except Walmart.

During the Lampert era the two chains have also been cited more than 50 times by OSHA for workplace safety and health abuses, paying some $600,000 in fines. They have also been involved in five cases with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, including one in which Sears had to pay $6.2 million in 2010 to settle allegations of widespread violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Sears has also gotten into trouble in its dealings with the federal government. In 2017 Kmart had to pay $32.3 million to resolve allegations that its in-house pharmacies violated the False Claims Act by overbilling federal health programs when filling prescriptions for generic drugs.

Sears has played a significant role in the history of American retailing, but it has not always been a positive one. Now that its days appear to be numbered, we can focus our attention on the newer generation of bad actors, such as Amazon, that now dominate the system in which we obtain the necessities of everyday life.

The Belated Revival of Pension Fund Social Activism

Thursday, October 11th, 2018

The rich own a large and growing share of the wealth in the U.S. economy, but more than $20 trillion in assets is held by financial entities that represent a much broader portion of the population: pension funds. According to a recent article in the New York Times, some of these funds, especially public employee funds run by state governments, are becoming woke.

The Times points to the support some funds have been showing for the effort of workers at Toys R Us to get severance pay if the troubled retailer’s private equity owners let it go under. Funds have also been pressuring private equity firms over issues such as foreclosures in Puerto Rico and payday lending.

These initiatives are encouraging, but there is one problem: they are about 30 years too late. The recent spurt of pension fund social activism is hardly unprecedented. In the late 1970s, when U.S. big business began an open assault on unions, labor strategists began looking to “pension muscle” as a new device for shifting the balance of power in industrial relations. The idea was to use pension assets as leverage to get corporations to treat workers fairly, while also seeking to use them to invest in projects that would create well-paying jobs for union members.

In 1978 Jeremy Rifkin and Randy Barber published The North Will Rise Again, a manifesto for a pension-fund revolution. Labor officials expressed indignation that the pension funds of unionized workers were often heavily invested in the securities of some of the country’s most anti-labor and socially irresponsible companies. Even the business press took a worried look at the potential power of union pensions; Fortune, for instance, published a piece entitled “Pension Funds Could Be the Unions’ Secret Weapon.”

Bringing about the pension revolution was no easy task. First of all, most single-employer plans were firmly controlled by management. Unions had more sway over multi-employer plans, known as Taft-Hartley funds, in industries such as construction. Yet even the latter were restricted by efforts of the Reagan Administration Labor Department to label targeted or social investments as violations of the fiduciary duties of plan trustees.

Unions did manage to mobilize pension power in some campaigns, including those targeting J.P. Stevens, Phelps-Dodge and Louisiana-Pacific, but it never amounted to anything close to the revolution envisioned by Rifkin and Barber. Some money was directed to labor-friendly investments, but for the most part, unions used their influence over pensions mainly to promote reforms in corporate governance that often had a limited relationship to workplace conditions.

The same was true for public pension funds. A few such as California’s CALPERS took some social initiatives but most state funds were no more activist than mainstream asset managers such as Fidelity Investments.

When the leveraged buyout operators of the 1980s repackaged themselves as private equity firms in the early 2000s, pension funds were not in a position to challenge the looting that took place. On the contrary, the funds, desperate to pump up their faltering assets, became some of the most enthusiastic investors. In a February 28, 2007 column in the Wall Street Journal, Alan Murray wrote: “Public-pension-fund money is pouring into private equity, where there is little accountability to investors, limited transparency, and compensation levels that would make the average CEO blush.”

Unions such as SEIU became vocal critics of private equity, while union trustees of Taft-Hartley funds joined their public pension counterparts in becoming enthralled by the high returns promised by PE. The Times piece was accurate in describing the relationship between private equity firms and pension funds as “symbiotic.”

We can hope that the recent revival of pension fund social activism is more than an anomaly, but one can’t help wonder how different the economy would be if it had not been postponed for so many years.


Note: This piece draws from an article of mine entitled “Labor’s Lost Lever” published in the May 1988 issue of The Progressive.

The Not-So-Mysterious Solution to Wage Stagnation

Thursday, October 4th, 2018

Many steelworkers thought they had hit the jackpot. Back in March, Donald Trump announced steep tariffs on metals imported from most of the world, and three months later he added close allies such as Canada and Mexico to the list. As with many of his other economic policies, Trump claimed that the move was designed to benefit U.S. workers, a few of whom were brought to the White House with their hardhats to serve as props when the measure was first announced.

Now months have passed, and steelworkers are still waiting for the payoff. As one of them recently told the Washington Post, “It’s been a little like watching the air going out of a balloon.” When it comes to steel company profits, the party is still in full swing as the industry reaps the benefits of soaring prices.

Yet the producers are resisting sharing the wealth with their workers. In fact, the big companies took such a hard line in their contract negotiations with the United Steelworkers that union members authorized strikes against United States Steel and ArcelorMittal. If a walkout were to occur, it would interrupt the labor peace that has prevailed in the industry for several decades.

It has been widely reported that Trump’s tariffs may be harming more workers than they are helping, as industries dependent on the affected imports lay people off or otherwise squeeze employees to deal with the increased costs. The situation in steel shows that even in the favored industries workers do not necessarily benefit when their employers experience a windfall. They have to fight for their share.

The same principle applies in sectors not directly affected by tariffs. Take Amazon, which has been basking in praise after setting a $15 an hour minimum wage for its growing workforce. This was not a case of corporate generosity.

The company, headed by the ridiculously wealthy Jeff Bezos, has been under increasing pressure over poor working conditions at its distribution centers. Amazon had replaced Walmart as the prime exemplar of the abusive employer. Sen. Bernie Sanders recently introduced legislation called the Stop Bezos Act to penalize large companies whose low-wage workers had to depend on government safety net programs. This, plus the Fight for $15 campaign and the community groups organizing around the company’s plans to build a massive second headquarters complex in a yet-to-be-chosen city, compelled Amazon to start to move away from the low road.

In a recent interview with the PBS Newshour, Fed chairman Jerome Powell was the latest economic analyst to call it a mystery that wages are not rising more in a tight labor market. Decades ago, when pay levels were rising rapidly, mainstream economists did not hesitate to cite unions as a key cause—and in fact blamed organized labor for being too aggressive.

Yet these same economists cannot bring themselves to acknowledge that the weakening of unions, brought about by employer animus and government restrictions, is now a major reason for wage stagnation.

The good news is that collective action, both through unions and other labor organizations, seems to be making a comeback. That—and not the bogus labor-friendly trade and regulatory policies of the Trump Administration—will be what restores the living standards of the U.S. workforce.