By RUSSELL MOKHIBER & ROBERT WEISSMAN
As we move into the new millennium, it is important to remind ourselves that this has been the century of the corporation, where for-profit, largely unaccountable organizations with unlimited life, size and power took control of the economy and of the political economy -- largely to the detriment of the individual consumer, worker, neighbor and citizen.
Let us again remind ourselves that corporations were the creation of the citizenry. (Thanks here to Richard Grossman of the Project on Corporations Law and Democracy for resurrecting and teaching us a history we would have collectively forgotten.)
In the beginning, we the citizenry created the corporation to do the public's work -- build a canal or a road -- and then go out of business.
We asked people with money to build the canal or road. If anything went wrong, the liability of these people with money -- shareholders, we call them -- would be limited to the amount of money they invested and no more. This limited liability corporation is the bedrock of the market economy. The markets would deflate like a punctured balloon if corporations were stripped of limited liability for shareholders.
And what do we, the citizenry, get in return for this generous public grant of limited liability? Originally, we told the corporation what to do. You are to deliver the goods and then go out of business. And then let humans live our lives.
But corporations gained power, broke through democratic controls, and now roam around the world inflicting unspeakable damage on the earth.
Let us count the ways: price-fixing, chemical explosions, mercury poisoning, oil spills, destruction of public transportation systems.
Need concrete examples? These are five of the most egregious of the century:
Number five: Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) and Price Fixing.
In October 1996, Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), the good people who bring you National Public Radio, pled guilty and paid a $100 million criminal fine -- at the time, the largest criminal antitrust fine ever -- for its role in conspiracies to fix prices to eliminate competition and allocate sales in the lysine and citric acid markets worldwide.
Number four: Union Carbide and Bhopal.
In 1984, a Union Carbide pesticide factory in Bhopal, India released 90,000 pounds of the chemical methyl isocyanate. The resulting toxic cloud killed several thousand people and injured hundreds of thousands.
Number Three: Chisso Corporation and Minamata.
Minamata, Japan was home to Chisso Corporation, a petrochemical company and maker of plastics. In the 1950s, fish began floating dead in Minamata Bay, cats began committing suicide, and children were getting rare forms of brain cancer. Thousands were injured. The company had been dumping mercury into the bay.
Number two: Exxon Corporation and Valdez Oil Spill.
Ten years ago, the Exxon Valdez hit a reef in Prince William Sound Alaska and spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil onto 1,500 miles of Alaskan shoreline, killing birds and fish, and destroying the way of life of thousands of Native Americans.
Number one: General Motors and the Destruction of Inner City Rail.
Seventy years ago, clean, quiet and efficient inner city rail systems dotted the U.S. landscape. They were eliminated in the 1930s to make way for dirty and noisy gasoline-powered automobiles and buses. The inner city rail systems were destroyed by those very companies that would most benefit from destruction of inner city rail -- oil, tire and automobile companies, led by General Motors.
By 1949, GM had helped destroy 100 electric systems in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, St. Louis, Oakland, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles and elsewhere.
In 1949, a federal grand jury in Chicago indicted and a jury convicted GM, Standard Oil of California and Firestone, among others, of criminally conspiring to replace electric transportation with gas- and diesel-powered buses and to monopolize the sale of buses and related products to transportation companies around the country.
GM and the other convicted companies were fined $5,000 each.
These are not unusual examples. Books have been written documenting the ongoing destruction. The question remains -- how do we put a stop to it?
And the answer seems clear to us -- reassert public control over what was originally a public institution.
The ideas on how to reassert such control are the subject of debate and conflict, in Seattle and around the world. But it seems clear to us that as the twentieth century was the century of the corporation, the twenty-first promises to be the century where flesh-and-blood human beings reassert sovereignty over their lives, their markets and their democracy.
Let us not forget that corporate control was never inevitable. They took it from us, and it is our responsibility to take it back.
Charles Dickens, where are you when we need you? Never has "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times" served as a more apt commentary on society than today.
The NASDAQ just broke 4,000 and has nearly doubled in 1999. The Dow is at near-record heights as well. Internet, computer and communications technologies are evolving at a stunning velocity. A lot of people are becoming incredibly wealthy, and a lot are having fun on the Internet.
If you want, you can look at this state of affairs and say that everything is fine. Go ahead, pat yourself on the back.
Or, you can look at a different set of snapshots and ask these and many other probing questions:
Why does the United States, the richest nation in the history of the world, warehouse its elderly in what are euphemistically called nursing homes, permitting many to live out their last years in social isolation and sometimes filth and neglect?
Why are profitable and fast-growing corporations permitted to expose their workers to dangerous and life-threatening conditions that could be avoided with minimal investments?
Why are the poor, undereducated and unsophisticated subject to a host of financial scams that empty their small savings accounts or throw them into debt?
Why are working people in the United States who try to organize into unions regularly subjected to threats of firing and plant closure, harassment, intimidation and managerial refusal to bargain with duly elected unions?
Why does the United States permit the massive concentration of economic and political power through mergers and acquisitions that work to foreclose democratic options for the future?
Why do rich societies permit their corporations to engage, directly or indirectly, through contractors and subcontractors, in brutally exploitative practices in developing countries -- practices that have long been outlawed in the rich countries?
There is of course no one single answer to these and the many other critical questions that should be asked in a society that does so much to generate wealth, at least as measured by conventional standards, but so little to distribute that wealth -- or justice -- evenly. But there is one connecting theme that serves, at least, as a partial answer to many of these questions: concentrated corporate power.
Each year, to highlight the consequences of corporations and greed run amok, Multinational Monitor publishes a list of the 10 worst corporations of the year.
Here's this year's list, in alphabetical order:
Avondale: Good riddance
For more than half a decade, Avondale, which operates a shipyard in New Orleans, waged a vicious campaign to block recognition of its employees' desire for a union -- a desire springing in no small part from way below industry standard wages and a gruesome workplace casualty record of a death a year. In August, Avondale was acquired by Litton, which agreed to recognize the workers' union in November.
Citigroup: The standard in political corruption
Citigroup played the lead role in ushering the "Financial Services Modernization Act" through the U.S. Congress, in the process joining with the rest of the financial services industry to set a new standard in legalized bribery. The Act will tear down the regulatory walls between banks, and insurance companies and securities firms, paving the massive concentration of financial wealth and a future of industry bailouts, weakening the Community Reinvestment Act and permitting huge intrusions on consumer privacy.
Del Monte: Banana imperialism into the twenty-first century
In September, Bandegua, the Guatemalan subsidiary of Coral Gables, Florida-based Fresh Del Monte Produce (now a separate company from California-based Del Monte Foods), dismissed 900 of its banana workers. When other unionized Bandegua workers tried to organize a solidarity protest, the union leadership was met with a 200-person, armed goon squad which chased the leadership out of town, threatening to kill them if they returned. Del Monte and Bandegua deny responsibility, but they have certainly benefited from the threats.
Guardian Postacute: Maggots everywhere
After learning that of Guardian Postacute Services Inc., a San Francisco Bay area nursing home chain, had permitted dirty feeding tubes to be installed into patients who then became infested with maggots, had permitted patients to lie for extended periods in their urine and feces, and had failed to take strong action against an employee who sexually abused patients, Santa Clara County Deputy District Attorney Randy Hey has filed criminal charges against Guardian.
Hoffman La Roche: Take the market, pay the fine
Earlier this year, the Swiss pharmaceutical giant F. Hoffmann-La Roche Ltd. paid $500 million -- the largest fine in U.S. antitrust history -- for its efforts with German chemical maker BASF to allocate market shares for certain vitamins sold in the United States and elsewhere. The whistleblower who inspired the case says Roche's response to the fines was to redouble its efforts to gain total control of the vitamin market.
Tosco: Four dead workers
On February 23, 1999, four workers at a Tosco Corp. facility in Avon, California were burned to death after they tried to replace a leaky oil pipe. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that one Tosco employee, Anthony Creggett, claimed shortly after the fire that plant managers had refused a request by four workers to shut down the high-temperature distillation tower during the repairs on the pipe.
Tyson: Seven deaths in seven months
Maybe we should consider raising our own chickens. Clearly, relying on multinational corporations to raise millions of birds for us in unsanitary and dangerous conditions is not working out. Tyson's Foods is a case in point. Do you really want to buy your chicken from these people? Consider this: seven workers have been killed at Tyson facilities this year. There have been no reported job-related deaths at any other poultry company in 1999.
U.S. Bank: Big brother is watching
Earlier this year, U.S. Bank agreed to stop selling its customers' personal data -- everything from social security numbers to account balances, from birth date to number of credit cards -- to a telemarketing firm. But that came only after Minnesota Attorney General Mike Hatch filed a lawsuit against U.S. Bank, alleging it violated the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act and engaged in consumer fraud and deceptive advertising.
Whirlpool: Preying on the poor
Earlier this year, an Alabama jury hit a recently spun off Whirlpool subsidiary, Whirlpool Financial, and one of its dealers with a $581 million verdict for targeting illiterate and poor people in a sales scheme involving satellite television dishes. Lawyers representing the victims said that Whirlpool had dealers all over the state going door-to-door soliciting poor, unsophisticated and elderly customers to purchase satellite television dishes for $1,100 plus 22 percent interest. The same equipment could be bought at an electronics store for $199. On appeal, an Alabama appellate court agreed only to knock the verdict down to $301 million.
W.R. Grace: You can't eat enough of it
At least 192 people have died of asbestos-related disease from a mine near Libby, Montana, that was owned by W.R. Grace for nearly 30 years, according to a report that appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. At least another 375 have been diagnosed with the fatal disease. For three decades, Grace mined enormous deposits of vermiculite in the earth of nearby Zonolite Mountain. Under the vermiculite are millions of tons of tremolite, a rare and exceedingly toxic form of asbestos. Community residents say Grace for years told residents and workers that the dust was harmless. "When my father was a young man they told him, 'You can't eat enough of that stuff. It won't bother you. He's dead,'" Patrick Vinion, a Libby resident, says. Now Vinion, who never worked as a miner, is himself dying from asbestos-related disease.
Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Corporate Crime Reporter (contact 202-737-1680 or email@example.com). Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor (202-387-8030 or firstname.lastname@example.org). A collection of their columns, Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy, was published by Common Courage Press. For information see their web site, www.corporatepredators.org, or call Common Courage Press at 1-800-497-3207.