Corporate Crime or Business as Usual?
- News for Anarchists & Activists:
Published in the September 1, 2001 issue of The Progressive
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
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
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
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
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@...
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