Monday, January 6, 2014

Adventures in Corporate Exploitation, From the Clear Blue Skies to Your Morning Breakfast Bowl
I'm really trying to be more easygoing this year, but sometimes you just have to speak out.

In this case, a couple of news items unfolded over the weekend that have a connection to the state and region I live in. And they both underscore just how callous and dishonest big corporations can be.

First, the machinists at Boeing voted 51% to 49% to accept a deal from their employer that will keep production of the company's 777X plane in the Puget Sound area. The union's national leadership forced a final vote on the issue, and in the end, workers ended up swallowing a deal that forces them to give up their pensions. Boeing will now switch to a 401(k) plan.

The machinists were essentially backed into a corner. They could give up their pensions, or they could see the 777X work slip away to any of 22 other states that had expressed an interest in taking on the project.

Several workers were reportedly in tears when the final vote count was announced.
"They held a gun to our head and our people were afraid," said union council delegate Lester Mullen after the vote.

"I don't ever want to gamble. I've got a family to take care of," said mechanic Avery Madden.

Boeing knew that's how this would end up. With the threat of extortion hanging over their heads, the machinists chose to pay their bills and clothe their kids. They chose survival.

The workers couldn't win, and Boeing couldn't lose.

Boeing officials, naturally, praised the vote. So did Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who in November signed off on $8.7 billion in tax breaks for Boeing -- essentially a public bribe to keep the 777X work in-state. 

That's $8.7 billion in concessions for a company that saw its stock rise more than 80% last year, announced a $10 billion stock buyback, increased dividends to shareholders by 50% (an outlay of more than $2 billion in itself), and reported $1.16 billion in profits its most recently completed quarter. And did I mention that Boeing's CEO, Jim McNerney, made $21 million last year? That was a 15% raise over the previous year.

All this money rolling around, and Boeing couldn't find room in its budget for pensions? For the people who did all the work and made those profits possible?

The Wall Street Journal, unsurprisingly, took Boeing's side in claiming that the pensions were "unsustainable," in the ongoing fight for companies to remain competitive. In Boeing's case, that means staying competitive against Airbus and Airbus only, because Boeing has a practical monopoly on passenger-jet production in the United States -- and that's not to mention its military contracts.

Just how "unsustainable" were the pensions? The Puget Sound Business Journal cites Peter Arment of brokerage firm Sterne Agee as saying that "the analysts' consensus per-share performance for Boeing in 2013 -- $5 a share -- would be $2 higher were it not for pension obligations."

So we're not talking about a swing between a loss and a gain here. If poor, beleaguered Boeing didn't have to pay out all those pension obligations, it could be taking in $7 in earnings per share instead of "just" $5.


It's no wonder Ralph Nader wrote an open letter to McNerney, decrying the company's "cruel downward pressure on your machinists" and accusing Boeing of being "one of the major corporate welfare kings in America."

Sure, the 777X work will now stay in the region, but at what cost? Workers' retirements have been sacrificed on the altar of corporate profits and shareholder value. Boeing, meanwhile, gives up nothing, and its stock continues to rise.

Conrad Irwin, Wikimedia Commons.
In the meantime, a story came out over the weekend that General Mills is taking the GMOs out of Cheerios. News outlets generally spun the announcement as an act of bowing to public pressure over GMOs, even though this move is little more than an empty PR stunt by General Mills. The oats in Cheerios weren't genetically modified to begin with, so the only thing changing will be the sourcing of the sugar and corn starch. Furthermore, other flavors of Cheerios still won't be GMO-free; this affects only the original variety of the cereal.

But General Mills wants you to think this was a noble act of self-sacrifice. Spokesman Mike Siemienas proclaimed: "There is broad consensus that food containing GMOs is safe, but we decided to move forward with this in response to consumer demand." (Emphasis mine.)

No, they didn't. Otherwise, they wouldn't have poured more than half a million dollars into the campaign to oppose GMO labeling here in Washington last November.

You'd think some journalist, somewhere, would have picked up this part of the story. It seems rather important in understanding the big picture. But I haven't seen it reported anywhere -- which I think says a lot about the state of the news media these days. Sometimes you have to look beyond the press release and question the official story. That's part of what journalists are supposed to do.

As I mentioned in a previous post, we Washingtonians voted on an initiative that would have required labeling of genetically modified foods sold within our state. The initiative had broad initial support -- until massive agribusiness interests and food conglomerates began pouring millions of dollars into a relentless disinformation campaign, saturating mailboxes and the airwaves with falsehoods that were designed to scare people into voting against the initiative -- and, by extension, protect the bottom lines of the companies funding the "No" campaign. No one has ever spent as much money on an initiative campaign in state history. And thanks to their efforts, the initiative died, in the same way these same companies killed California's attempt at a labeling law. 

So who was behind the nearly $22 million in donations to "No on 522"? Pretty much the names you'd expect: Monsanto, DuPont Pioneer, Bayer CropScience, BASF Plant Science, Dow Agrosciences ... and a food-industry trade group called the Grocery Manufacturers Association. The GMA outspent all of the other donors, but no one in Washington knew which of its member companies were donating to the campaign, because the GMA was essentially laundering their contributions, to shield them from public criticism. That was a violation of state campaign finance law, and Washington's attorney general sued. It was only then, under legal duress, that the GMA relented and released the names of its donors.

Among them? General Mills, maker of Cheerios, at $598,819. Only Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Nestle USA spent more among the GMA's donors to defeat 522.

So let's call the Cheerios "news" what it really is: a smokescreen. An attempt to disarm GMO critics by making it appear as if one of the big food producers is taking its consumers' wishes to heart, when it's doing nothing of the sort.

As the Seattle Times opined following the November election, the goal of the GMA and its "No on 522" partners was simple: "Stop a movement, opposed by big business, in Washington. Don't let it spread to other states. Money is no object."

And lest anyone think these corporate powers were content to stop at crushing Washingtonians' right to know what was in their food, documents filed with the attorney general's office following the forced disclosure revealed that the end goal of the GMA is to secure a federal ban on GMO labeling. Meanwhile, following the 522 defeat, the GMA was also busy lobbying the FDA to use the word "natural" on foods containing GMOs. Mind you, "natural" means nothing, in terms of the contents of your food. The only purpose of using the word "natural" on GMO foods would be to confuse consumers into thinking they're buying organic or non-GMO products.

This is the level of deception the GMA is willing to employ. They will apparently stop at nothing to squelch GMO labeling initiatives, all while trying to deceive the public about the content of the foods they sell.

And this, again, is a group that includes General Mills, the maker of Cheerios, which personally spent more than half a million dollars to stop GMO labeling in Washington.

Still believe General Mills is making Cheerios GMO-free out of the goodness of its heart, or in response to public concern over GMOs?

For the corporate giants that control our wages, what we consume, and how most of our elected leaders vote, money is no object. And as companies like Boeing remind us, their primary motivation is to amass even more money, even if it's at the expense of ordinary working-class citizens just trying to get by and provide for their families and their retirements.

The rich get richer, on the backs of all of us, as the income gap widens to record proportions and wealth continues to concentrate itself into fewer and fewer hands.

When is enough going to be enough?

No comments:

Post a Comment