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Tag: corporate greed

How Corporate Greed Is Causing Tornado Deaths

In its ranking of business values, corporate America proudly provides a special place for elevated moral behavior. That place is the trash can.

Indeed, several years ago, free-market extremist Milton Friedman actually decreed that the only ethical obligation a corporation has to society is to deliver as much profit as possible to its big investors — everybody else be damned. Any awfulness caused by their self-indulgent policy of profit maximization is excused by claiming that their iniquities "broke no laws." But — hello — they write the laws, intentionally defining corporate immorality as always technically legal.

America experienced the result of this mentality just before Christmas, when a line of supercell tornadoes ripped through Midwestern states, demolishing homes, businesses and even whole towns, killing more than 90 people. "A tragedy," wailed CEOs, the media and public officials! But wait: Those deaths were not destiny. No question that a twisting 190-mph vortex comes at us with cataclysmic power, but we're not helpless in the face of its fury. For years, an effective, comparatively cheap defense against killer tornadoes has been readily available: Safe rooms.

Basically, these are simple, concrete rooms built inside homes, schools, factories, shopping centers and elsewhere. People can shelter safely in them during big blows, surviving even if the building around them is shredded. Emergency management officials report that they provide "near absolute protection" from tornadoes. A decade ago, safety officials, insurance providers, consumer advocates and others had proposed amending our building codes to require these inexpensive, lifesaving structures in new commercial and public buildings. Such a provision would've saved many workers who were crushed in an Amazon warehouse, a candle-making factory and other buildings destroyed in December's storms.

But they died, because in 2012, members of a little-known industry-controlled group, the International Code Council, had quietly vetoed the proposal, calling it "overly restrictive," even declaring it "way too soon to do a knee jerk reaction" to tornado deaths.

All those buildings smashed by December's tornadoes were corporate death sites because their shoddy construction "broke no laws." Let's ask corporate America if it's still too soon for Congress to mandate tornado-safe rooms.

The morning after the horrific tornado smashed a huge Amazon warehouse in Illinois, killing six workers on the night shift, corporate CEO Jeff Bezos issued a personal video message.

But instead of expressing distress and sorrow, Boss Bezos was perversely giddy. That's because the narcissistic gazillionaire had not made the video to mourn the deaths. Rather, ignoring Amazon's Illinois disaster, he had chosen this hour of tragedy to gloat to the world that his private space tourism business had just rocketed a small group of extremely rich thrill seekers on a 10-minute joyride some 66 miles up to the edge of space. As reported by the "Popular Information" newsletter, Bezos even dressed up in a pretend astronaut costume for this PR video, grinning proudly as he exclaimed that everyone involved was really "happy."

Back on Planet Earth, though, the families and co-workers of the employees crushed when Amazon's cheaply built structure collapsed on them were not happy with him. It took Bezos some 12 hours after his self-congratulatory media event before he finally issued a perfunctory tweet professing to be "heartbroken over the loss of our teammates."

But they weren't "lost" to a storm — they were killed by a deliberate corporate culture that routinely cuts corners on worker safety to put more profit in corporate pockets. First, the building itself was thrown up quickly with cheap, preassembled, 40-foot-high concrete walls that collapse inward in a tornado; second, Amazon's employees were expected to stay on the job that night even though there was a high risk of tornadoes; third, Amazon never bothered to hold tornado drills; and fourth, nearly all of the workers were classified as "contractors," letting Amazon dodge liability for on-the-job harm.

Oh, and Jeff might also want to reconsider one more bit of the corporate arrogance he revealed in this ugly incident: Those dead workers were not his "teammates," as he so cynically called them — even a high-flying captain doesn't treat teammates as throwaway units, carelessly sacrificing their lives for a few more dollars in corporate profit.

To find out more about Jim Hightower and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.

Work, Sweat, Die: The Price Of The Hottest Jobs


It was a hell of a hot summer, exploding the tops off thermometers with deadly triple-digit readings across the country, including in far northern regions that've almost never seen such extremes. As we're learning, week after week of debilitating heat intensifies wildfires, causes electric grids to fail, kills millions of wild animals (including fish), burns up crops, and concentrates toxic air.

But there's another impact that draws little notice: Heat kills workers. Indeed, those searing days of 95, 100, 110 degrees kill and injure more U.S. workers each year than all the floods, hurricanes and tornadoes combined. Those toiling outdoors — including farmworkers, roofers and carpenters, airport ground crews, landscapers, road and street repairers, letter carriers and trash collectors — are in the direct line of fire for this invisible, insidious killer. But indoors is no better if there's no air conditioning, for sprawling warehouse and manufacturing plants made of metal and stone become ovens.

Then, welcome to climate change — 20 of the last 21 years gave us the hottest temperatures on record. Unsurprisingly, the yearly number of worker heat deaths doubled over that period. Also, researchers have determined that extreme workplace heat is causing about 170,000 people a year to suffer injuries on the job.

The impact of heat is poorly understood, even by workers. Sudden heatstroke is not the only worry, for rising body temperatures can quickly cloud the mind, weaken muscles and numb concentration. So, workers fall; their hands get caught in machinery; they touch the wrong wire; they get hit by a front-end loader.

Sitting in climate-controlled executive suites, distant legislative chambers and comfortable editorial offices, America's power elites literally don't feel the intensity of this heat, so the richest country in the history of the world continues to subject millions of its people to senseless suffering and death, not even talking about this embarrassment, much less stopping it.

America's corporate acolytes and right-wing moralists preach that an uncomplaining, nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic is what gives dignity to laboring stiffs.

Of course, that's "dignity" as defined and controlled by corporate elites, not by workers, and the reward for it frequently includes on-the-job injuries ... and death. Not that CEOs and well-heeled investors intentionally sicken, maim and kill thousands of laborers every year — but they certainly do put them in positions to experience such unhappy results. For example, they require that farmworkers spend hours picking crops on 105-degree California days, or that construction crews toil in the muggy dog days of Florida summers tarring the roofs of condos. Low-paid, powerless workers die, but no one in the corporate hierarchy did the deed — heat was the killer.

But wait, not only are aloof bosses back at air-cooled headquarters the ones who knowingly subject subordinates to that deadly heat, but they're also the ones who hire squads of lobbyists and lawyers to kill regulations that could prevent these deaths. Proposed solutions are not exactly high-tech or even expensive: Require ample water at work sites; ensure paid rest breaks in cool spaces; train on-site managers and employees to detect and react to signs of heat stress; require good ventilation and proper clothing; establish emergency response procedures; foster a safety-first environment; and impose serious punishments for violators.

Such sensible steps have repeatedly been proposed as official workplace policy for at least the last 50 years — but intense industry opposition has killed the adoption of any such standards of prevention. Instead, the U.S. "protects" workers with a voluntary awareness campaign that essentially consists of posters urging employees to beware of heat, saying to them, "goodbye and good luck."

But at last, a real proposal has been put on the table by more than 110 grassroots groups. See it — and join it — by contacting Public Citizen at Citizen.org.

To find out more about Jim Hightower and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com

Now We Must Protect Our Water From Wall Street

"The pump don't work 'cause the vandals took the handles." Thus sang Bob Dylan in 1965, and we can now clearly see those vandals: In addition to polluting corporations, they're the national, state, and local officials who have routinely failed over the years to prevent the waste and defilement of our water supply while also failing to budget for even minimal upkeep and modernization of water delivery. As a result, the system is badly broken.

Federal funding for our water systems has plummeted 77 percent since its peak under former President Jimmy Carter. At the same time, the need for more national investment has dramatically increased: The U.S. population has surged by 110 million; aging water infrastructure is outdated and breaking down; state and local politicians have ignored problems (replacing an old pipe is not a prized photo-op); and necessary upgrades to cope with new contaminants and extreme weather events have gone unfunded by politicians catering to pro-corporate financial interests and anti-government ideologues.

So, here we sit, a nation of unsurpassed prosperity using duct tape and political hype to cover up the fact that our drinking water system is so dilapidated that it received a sorry C-minus grade from the quadrennial evaluation by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Worse, the wastewater component of the system (mile after mile of underground sewage pipes and nearly 16,000 treatment plants) scores a D-plus, with a majority of the waste plants nearing the end of their 45- to 50-year life spans. The overall system is so fragile that a water main breaks somewhere in America every two minutes, and it's so permeated with leaks that utilities lose 6 billion gallons of drinking water every day.

And then there's the rising crisis of affordability. With federal funding cut to a dribble, utilities have tried to fill in with constant hikes in water bills. Our average monthly rate has jumped more than a third since 2012, and analysts estimate that within three years, up to 36% of households won't be able to afford drinking water. Even with rising fees, utilities themselves are struggling. The American Water Works Association reports that income fully covers costs in only one in five systems, and four out of five large utilities expect they will not be able to provide full service five years from now.

Billions of years ago, when some squirmy form of early "us" crawled out of the sea, they brought along the need for that basic ingredient. Human bodies are 60 percent water, and most of earth's surface is not earth at all — 71 percent is covered in seas, rivers, lakes, bayous, etc. There is no "us" unless each of us gets a constant intake of reasonably clean water. If you don't ... you die, usually within three days.

Thus, managing this precious natural resource is a deeply moral responsibility. While our globe has an abundance of the wet stuff, 96.5 percent is undrinkable salt water. Of the potable 3.5 percent more than half is locked in ice at the polar caps or so deep underground it's unavailable. Still, we do have enough water to meet the needs of all — if it is conserved and fairly distributed.

Sadly, most countries do a piss-poor job of fulfilling their moral responsibility — especially the U.S., given our resources, abilities, and egalitarian pretensions. The good news is that the U.S. public is not only increasingly aware of the inexcusable inadequacies and inequalities in our water system but also increasingly outraged . As Sen. Bernie Sanders put it in February when introducing a major water justice bill: "It is beyond belief that in 2021, American kids are being poisoned by tap water."

Wall Street's sharks smell money in the water. In fact, they are out to privatize, commodify and "profitize" (own) our water. Of course, with ownership comes control, both of water's use and price. Unsurprisingly, the two core precepts of these Wall Street profiteers are: Water is greatly underpriced, so let's make it more expensive for all users, including us common drinkers; and water must flow to its "highest use" (i.e., highest bidders), so its allocation should not prioritize nonindustrial farms, lower-income communities or even general public use — but rather advantage high-tech facilities, upscale suburban developments and high-dollar businesses willing to pay the most.

More alarming, Wall Street is busy creating complex new financial gimmicks to allow speculators to dominate global water markets. Meanwhile, they're recycling the same gobbledygook about risk management that Enron deployed in the 1990s, even though that scandalous power play for energy markets led to massive corruption, job losses, waves of bankruptcies, and rip-offs of customers and shareholders.

For a splash course on water issues, look up "H2Equity: Rebuilding a Fair System of Water Services for America" from the Environmental Policy Innovation Center (http://www.policyinnovation.org).

To find out more about Jim Hightower and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.

Wells Fargo: Stumpf Was Only The Tip Of Corporate Rot

Just when you thought that Big Banker greed surely bottomed out with 2008’s Wall Street crash and bailout, along comes Wells Fargo, burrowing even deeper into the ethical slime to reach a previously unimaginable level of corporate depravity.

It’s one thing for these giants of finance to cook the books or defraud investors, but top executives of Wells Fargo have been profiteering for years by literally forcing their employees to rob the bank’s customers. Rather than a culture of service, executives have pushed a high-pressure “sales culture” at least since 2009, demanding that front-line employees meet extreme quotas of selling myriad unnecessary bank products to common depositors who just wanted a simple checking account. Employees were expected to load each customer with at least eight accounts, and employees were monitored constantly on meeting their quotas — fail and they’d be fired.

That’s why the bosses’ sales culture turned employees into a syndicate of bank robbers. The thievery was systemic, and it was not subtle: Half a million customers were secretly issued credit cards they didn’t request; fake email accounts for online services were set up without customers’ knowledge; debit cards were issued and activated without telling customers; depositors’ money was moved from one account to another; signatures were forged — and, of course, Wells Fargo collected fees for all of these bogus transactions, boosting its profits.

This is not a case of a few bankers gone rogue, but of a whole bank gone rogue, rotting from the head down. Some stories of corporate villainy make me throw up my hands in astonishment. But this one is so putrid it makes me literally throw up.

The sorry, still-evolving saga of Wells Fargo systematically stealing from its small depositors is a gag-inducing story of executive-suite greed. Start at the very top, with CEO John Stumpf, who claimed at a recent Senate hearing on the scandal to be shocked and “deeply sorry” that thousands of his employees had been opening bogus accounts in the names of non-English-speaking and elderly customers.

Just when you thought that Big Banker greed surely bottomed out with 2008’s Wall Street crash and bailout, along comes Wells Fargo, burrowing even deeper into the ethical slime to reach a previously unimaginable level of corporate depravity.

It’s one thing for these giants of finance to cook the books or defraud investors, but top executives of Wells Fargo have been profiteering for years by literally forcing their employees to rob the bank’s customers. Rather than a culture of service, executives have pushed a high-pressure “sales culture” at least since 2009, demanding that front-line employees meet extreme quotas of selling myriad unnecessary bank products to common depositors who just wanted a simple checking account. Employees were expected to load each customer with at least eight accounts, and employees were monitored constantly on meeting their quotas — fail and they’d be fired.

That’s why the bosses’ sales culture turned employees into a syndicate of bank robbers. The thievery was systemic, and it was not subtle: Half a million customers were secretly issued credit cards they didn’t request; fake email accounts for online services were set up without customers’ knowledge; debit cards were issued and activated without telling customers; depositors’ money was moved from one account to another; signatures were forged — and, of course, Wells Fargo collected fees for all of these bogus transactions, boosting its profits.

The silver-haired bank chief assured senators that he and other top bosses knew nothing about this mass breach of the bank’s code of ethics, blaming low-level employees and firing 5,300 of them. But John, John, John: First, weren’t you the one squeezing those employees relentlessly to push customers into multiple accounts? Second, how could you possibly not notice a huge crime spree that rampaged throughout your bank’s branches for seven years? Third, what about all those calls that honest employees made to your “ethics hotline” taking place every day? And, fourth, while you now cravenly blame your $12-an-hour employees for this bank-run mugging operation, it turns out you read about it in a 2013 expose by The Los Angeles Times. Why didn’t you stop it then?

Stumpf didn’t act because he was busy stuffing his own pockets with the loot, hauling off more than $100 million in personal pay in the last four years alone. What a deal: Workers are pressured to rob customers, then they get fired, while the boss of the caper grabs a fortune and protects all the higher ups — and he expected to get away with it all by making a non-apology to some senators. [Editor’s note: Stumpf resigned from Wells Fargo, effective immediately, on October 12.]

But the chief is not the only one who should be held accountable at Wells Fargo. Where were its board members, who are empowered and duty-bound to set, monitor, and assure ethnical corporate behavior from the top down? For seven years, this 15-member board of governance sat idle, apparently incurious about their corporation’s flagrant, widespread thievery, even after the report by the LA Times exposed it. Far from investigating and clamping down, the board kept shoving multimillion-dollar bonuses at Stumpf and other top executives. This is a powerhouse board, made up of top executives from other corporations, former government financial officials and big-time academics. And they are extremely well-paid to be diligent, getting up to $400,000 a year to keep Wells Fargo honest.

What’s at work here is the ethical rot that now consumes America’s entire corporate system — a system that steals from the many to further enrich the few, buying off the integrity and vigilance of those who run it. Excuse me, but I have to go throw up now.

To find out more about Jim Hightower, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.

IMAGE: Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf testifies before the House Financial Services Committee on Capitol Hill  in Washington, DC, U.S. September 29, 2016. REUTERS/Gary Cameron

Introducing Glencore, Rapacious Global Lord

Giant corporate entities have become so far-flung and impersonal that “human relations” departments have been created within the soulless structures to cloak the fact that there’s really nothing human about them. HR is mostly known for sending the corporate rank and file peppy motivational memos that boil down to: “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”

The beatings of American workers (wage slashing, axed benefits, union busting, mass firings, offshored factories, and brutish abuse of worker rights) have been increasing in frequency, intensity, and scope — mostly ordered by CEOs in the posh, faraway headquarters of multi-tentacled global empires. These detached autocrats are wrecking the lives of hardworking people for no reasons but institutional greed, calculated self-interest … and because our corporate-coddling government lets them get away with it. Let’s meet one of the most powerful of these lords of rapacious global capitalism — Glencore.

Never heard of Glencore? Neither had I until February, when I visited some members of the United Steelworkers Union outside a Glencore-owned aluminum plant (Sherwin Alumina) on the Texas Gulf Coast. In 2014, after months of negotiating a new contract, Glencore suddenly tossed these workers a take-it-or-leave-it offer that would drastically cut wages, increase healthcare costs, and eliminate pensions for new hires. (Glencore’s profit that year was $4.6 billion). Fed up, 98 percent of the union’s members voted against the contract. Glencore’s reaction was to lock them out and replace them with contract workers.

Some 5,500 miles away from these proud, principled workers, you’ll find Glencore’s sleek global headquarters (dubbed by Reuters as “the biggest company you never heard of”) in Baar, Switzerland.

Not merely big, it’s colossal — the tenth largest corporation in the world — with 160,000 employees in more than 50 countries on six continents. It produces and trades coal, oil, gas, metals, minerals, foodstuffs, and other commodities. Indeed, its nondescript name is an acronym for GLobal ENergy COmmodity REsources, and it owns a huge chunk of the world market for many internationally traded resources, including zinc, copper, nickel, aluminum, grain, and oil. Uniquely, Glencore combines the production and shipping of more than 90 different commodities with the entirely different, corporate culture of high-speed computer trading of commodities.

Now, let’s hail the chief, the uber-competitive and ravenous corporate dealmaker, CEO Ivan Glasenberg, whose $2.3 billion in personal wealth ranked him No. 301 last year on the Forbes list of the world’s 500 richest people. Since joining Glencore in 1984 as a base-level coal marketer, Glasenberg moved swiftly up the executive ladder to become “the savviest trader on the planet.” He dines with prime ministers and hobnobs with oligarchs, relentlessly pushing acquisitions, devising opaque partnerships, and gaining government favors that have made the conglomerate a dominating behemoth. But attaining, using, and holding such power in so many parts of the world can be, well, “untidy:”

  • Corruption of officials and severe human rights violations by executives of Cerrejon, an open-pit coal mining operation partly owned by Glencore. Charges include Cerrejon security forces expropriating entire villages to expand mines and, with Columbian paramilitary units, driving a Wayuu tribe off its land in what the native people called a “massacre.”
  • Cooking the books to evade taxes that its partially owned Mopani Copper Mines owed the people of Zambia, and letting pollution flow uncontrolled from the same mines, causing health problems for five million neighboring people.
  • Permanently shuttering Glencore’s Columbia Falls aluminum plant in Montana last year after 1,500 laid-off workers and local officials had, at the urging of the corporation, produced a viable plan to reopen it. Then refusing to reach a fair severance deal with USW members, some of whom had been with the plant for three decades. Also, opposing EPA’s designation of the contaminated factory site for a Superfund cleanup, claiming that this would devalue its property — even though a Superfund project would create jobs and benefit the community. Brian Doyle, president of the local steelworkers union in Columbia Falls, summed up the corporation’s attitude: “To Glencore, we’re just a number. They don’t know who we are, and they don’t care.”

Exactly. Which is why the workers in Texas are fighting this David- Goliath battle. To learn more, visit the United Steelworkers website at www.usw.org.

To find out more about Jim Hightower, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Web page at www.creators.com.

COPYRIGHT 2016 CREATORS.COM

Photo: The logo of Glencore is pictured in front of the company’s headquarters in the Swiss town of Baar, November 13, 2012.  REUTERS/Michael Buholzer