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 email@example.com.