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Corporate Crime or Business as Usual?

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  • Clore Daniel C
    News for Anarchists & Activists: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/smygo Published in the September 1, 2001 issue of The Progressive Populist Corporate Crime or
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 15, 2001
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      News for Anarchists & Activists:
      http://groups.yahoo.com/group/smygo

      Published in the September 1, 2001 issue of The Progressive
      Populist

      Corporate Crime or Business as Usual?

      by John Buell

      Fresh out of graduate school 25 years ago I was offered a
      job as a summer intern by Erwin Knoll, the editor of The
      Progressive magazine. Erwin could be cantankerous and
      opinionated, a quality that often surfaced in his regular
      PBS appearances during the last years of his life.
      Nonetheless, he was a brilliant and articulate observer of
      our political economy. Conversations about corporate
      morality within our offices were at least as illuminating as
      any graduate school seminar.

      Erwin liked to recount a long-standing debate with a friend
      and former colleague, Morton Mintz of the Washington Post.
      Mintz, now retired, was one of the most skilled and
      respected investigative journalists of his generation. He
      was one of the first to expose predatory pricing and
      deceptive advertising practices in the drug industry. Erwin
      respected Mintz's work, but he frequently chided him for
      implying that corporate malfeasance is an aberration. Didn't
      he recognize that abuse of the larger social good, even to
      the point of outright disobedience of the law, was intrinsic
      to corporate-dominated marketplaces?

      These conversations were reignited for me when another of
      Erwin's former sparring partners, Bill Moyers, presented a
      documentary on the chemical industry last spring. "Trade
      Secrets" was based on an immense trove of corporate files
      obtained in a wrongful death suit involving a former
      chemical plant worker. The documents demonstrate that major
      chemical manufacturers, though apparent competitors, closed
      ranks in the late 1950s to suppress evidence of vinyl
      chloride's toxicity. The industry freely shared internal
      evidence on the health risks of vinyl chloride, but it was
      deceitful in the information provided to its workers, the
      physicians who treated them, and the government. Preserving
      and expanding the market for vinyl chloride trumped all
      other considerations.

      In its response to Moyers, the industry maintains that such
      documentaries are one sided. They fail to acknowledge the
      many contributions that vinyl chloride makes to our lives.
      But this industry response misses the point. Workers,
      consumers, and regulators were entitled to a full accounting
      of the risks of vinyl chloride so that steps could be taken
      to limit risks and delineate appropriate uses for the
      product.

      Nor is Moyers merely covering the bad old days. After 276
      people filed lawsuits claiming that Dursban, Dow's indoor
      insecticide, poisoned them, the company still withheld
      internal documents that demonstrated its toxicity. When the
      truth finally came out in 1996, the company was fined a mere
      $740,000 by the Federal government for withholding
      information. Outrageous conduct proved to be a sound
      business decision.

      Not surprisingly, the chemical industry ranks right below
      the tobacco industry in levels of public distrust.
      Unfortunately, however, shameful practices are far more
      widespread than is widely reported or generally
      acknowledged. If chemical firms produce toxic soup, many
      other corporate cohorts are more than willing to dispense
      and dispose of the soup -- at our expense. Up until PCB's
      were banned in the mid-'70s, General Electric dumped more
      than a million pounds of the substance into the Hudson
      River. The company now declares it wishes to be a good
      corporate citizen and limit any future discharge.
      Nonetheless, it doggedly fights any effort to make it pay
      for the Hudson River cleanup. As Russell Mokhiber reports,
      "GE has pulled out all the stops to block the dredging plan
      ... Among other hardball tactics, the company deployed NBC
      President and GE Vice Chair Robert Wright to lobby New York
      City Council members against a bill endorsing the dredging
      project."

      Historically, many of the risks that new chemicals pose have
      been discovered through the active sleuthing of concerned
      workers and neighborhood associations. But all across the
      board, corporations work to limit the access, information,
      and power on which such challenges may be based. Kate
      Bronfenbrenner of Cornell University, a widely respected
      student of labor-management relations, finds that more than
      60% of employers confronting a union organizing drive use
      five or more antiunion tactics, both legal and illegal. One
      in 10 worker advocates of unionization are illegally fired,
      and plant closing or relocation is threatened in more than
      50% of organizing attempts.

      At the very least, many of our largest and most influential
      corporations treat their competitors, employees, and
      consumers in ways that parents would chastise in their
      children. Unfortunately, the pressures on and opportunities
      for corporations to act in deleterious ways are if anything
      only growing. Stock markets and the fund managers who
      dominate them are ever more obsessed with short-term
      profits. Unions and other grass roots bodies have ever less
      access to corporate affairs. Isolated and insulated from
      critics save only those who seek even higher profits, even
      more corporation executives today could follow an Eisenhower
      era CEO who assured industry critics that "what's good for
      GM is good for the country." Their crimes are often less a
      reflection of individual character than of the social matrix
      in which the modern corporation operates.

      John Buell lives in Southwest Harbor, Maine, and writes
      regularly on labor and environmental issues. He invites
      comments at mailto:jbuell@...

      --
      Dan Clore
      mailto:clore@...

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