The Multinational Monitor


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Union Busting at G.E.

Over the past several years, General Electric (GE) has waged a full-scale campaign against the unions in its Brazilian factories. GE management has been telling workers at its Rio de Janeiro and Campinas facilities that unless they disaffiliate from the union, they will lose their wage increases and promotions and, ultimately, their jobs. According to the Metalworkers Union of Rio de Janeiro, as of September 1988 at least 15 percent of GE's Rio workers had quit the union as a result of these threats. In addition, GE has tried to bankrupt the unions by refusing to allow them to collect the voluntary dues contributions of their members, even though the company had agreed to do so in their collective bargaining agreement.

In Apri1 1989, workers at the GE lamp factory in Rio de Janeiro held an eight-day strike to protest the loss of union rights. GE responded by firing 135 union leaders and activists. Several unions which represent GE workers in the United States have expressed their outrage at this action through letters to General Electric management. William Bywater, President of the International Union of Electronic, Electrical, Salaried, Machine and Furniture Workers, called on GE Chairman John F. Welch, Jr. to instruct GE's Brazilian subsidiaries to cease anti-union practices and asked that the GE workers be permitted to annul their union negotiation letters. Bywater also re-quested that GE fully compensate the Rio union for the loss in dues revenues.

According to Bob Kingsley of the United Electrical Workers (UE), the UE, on behalf of the U.S. General Electric workers whom it represents, also wrote to GE to demand that its Brazilian management reinstate the 135 union members fired as a result of the strike in Rio de Janeiro. General Electric did not respond to either re-quest.

Panasonic Rip-off

Forty-nine states and the district of Columbia have settled an antitrust lawsuit against the Matsushita Electric Corporation, the parent company of Panasonic. The company was charged with conspiring to fix the retail prices of Panasonic and Technics consumer electronics goods.

According to the complaint filed by the State Attorney General of New York, acting Liaison Counsel for all plaintiff states, Panasonic violated antitrust laws on several counts. In January 1988 while holding court at a Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Panasonic unveiled a new policy to help raise profits in the retail sale of its consumer electronic products. The company asked each retail distributor with whom it met at the CES to agree to charge a minimum retail price on in-store sales and to list that minimum price in advertisements. Panasonic threatened to stop doing business with retailers who did not adhere to the new policy.

Panasonic also circulated periodic bulletins titled "Panasonic Company Retail Price Guidelines," which listed the "Guideline Minimum" for numerous models of Panasonic and Technics products. Panasonic management instructed company representatives to communicate to all retailers of Panasonic products the prices contained in these lists. Company sales representatives were, however, not to show these price lists to retailers.

As part of the settlement, Panasonic has agreed to affix a notice of disclosure for a three-year period to every list of suggested retail prices notifying its retailers, dealers and distributors that it is their right to independently determine the prices at which they will sell or advertise Panasonic and/or Technics products. Says New York Attorney General Robert Abrams, "The hands-off policy of the Reagan Administration in the area of antitrust created the climate in which vertical price fixing would be condoned and implemented. Only vigorous antitrust enforcement by state attorneys general stands between our nation's consumers and the unfettered exercise of market dominance by giants in the corporate world."

The settlement also entitles more than 600,000 consumers who purchased certain Panasonic products between March 1 and August 31, 1988 to refunds totalling nearly $16 million. Individual refunds range from $17 to $45 per item and include the following products: Panasonic VCRs, camcorders and telephones and Technics receivers, rack systems and compact disc players.

For more information or to claim a refund, call 1-800-553-1739 or write to the Panasonic Settlement Fund Administrator, P.O. Box 96678, Washington, D.C. 20077.

Hard to Swallow

The House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations released a report in July criticizing the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) inspection performance of foreign foodstuffs, pharmaceuticals and medical devices.

Food imports exceed 30 billion pounds annually, about 9 percent of the total U.S. food supply. In fiscal year 1987, the FDA physically tested only slightly more than 2 percent of these imports, and 40 percent of the products sampled failed to meet various FDA standards. Problems included: contamination with salmonella, pesticides and/or insects; labeling deficiencies; and decomposition.

John Dingell, D-MI, chairman of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee, said that, "At present, the FDA's ability to prevent contaminated food from reaching the consumer appears at best to be marginal."

In addition to inspection deficiencies, the report found serious communication gaps between the FDA and the Customs Service. For example, products rejected by FDA as unfit for U.S. consumption often enter the country through another port or are sold to other countries.

In 1987, Customs Service agents testified before Rep.Dingell's subcommittee that a variety of schemes had been employed to evade FDA rejection notices. Empty containers or containers stuffed with cheap filler were exported under the pretense of re-exporting the refused merchandise. False destruction declarations were presented to Customs officials without even faking a container shipment. Another tactic was to substitute uncontaminated goods for the rejected items, and ship the acceptable material to another country where it could be sold.

In response to these atrocities, Customs Commissioner Von Raab launched "Operation Ptomaine" in January 1989 to address the problem of the re-export of refused food products. Reviewing the Customs operation, the subcommittee found that while the situation has improved since January, problems remain because of poor communication between the Customs Service and the FDA, shortage of staff and the lack of legal authority to force importers to destroy hazardous goods, making reexport impossible.

The subcommittee report, titled "Hard to Swallow," suggested that the FDA adopt the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) practice of stamping every container in a shipment "Refused Entry to the United States USDA." Selling such merchandise would require an importer to repackage the refused goods. According to one USDA official, this practice is drying up the market for meat refused entry to the United States.

A spokesperson for the FDA said that although the report contains exaggerations, it is essentially correct that the system is strained and that the FDA has repeatedly told Congress that it needs more resources.

Resisting Radiation

In January 1989, the Malaysia Nuclear Energy Unit (NEU) completed a $2 million irradiation plant, ostensibly for the purposes of research and sterilization of medical instruments. The stated and relatively benign characterization, however, has not dampened the alarm which the plant has generated within Malaysia. The reasons for the concern are two-fold. First, Malaysia is importing Cobalt-60 from Canada to fuel the facility. Consumer groups are particularly outraged that Malaysia, presently free of nuclear waste, has allowed this dangerous substance into the country. According to Irving Rothstein of the San Francisco-based National Coalition to Stop Food Irradiation, Canada strongly promotes food irradiation because it provides a convenient way to dispose of its Cobalt-60.

In addition to introducing hazardous waste into the country, the facilities themselves pose a serious danger. For example, an accident recently occurred at a Salvadoran irradiation facility established by Nordian, formerly the Atomic Energy Commission of Canada. In June 1988, in Decatur, Georgia, now known as the Three Mile Island of food irradiation, a capsule containing radioactive cesium broke open, exposing 10 workers to the

deadly substand and contaminating the facility, including 25,000 gallons of water.

The second source of apprehension among Malaysian consumer groups is the potential for the plant to be used to irradiate food. Presently, irradiated food is banned for sale in Malaysia, except for individual cases approved by the Ministry of Health. But consumer advocates worry that the ban will not be maintained. "If that law is going to be changed, it should be done with the full knowledge and consent of consumers who are going to put the irradiated food into their mouths," said Mohd Idris, president of the Consumer's Association of Penang (CAP), in the Asia-Pacific People's Environmental Net-work (APPEN) newsletter.

The concerns appear to be well-founded. The Malaysian facility will begin operation on a small scale, but is capable of irradiating up to 60,000 tons of rice or 16,000 tons of prawns a year, according to APPEN. Because huge quantities of food must be irradiated to make the process financially coin petitive with conventional chemical treatments, consumer groups are concerned that the operation will expand.

In addition, CAP fears that the government will begin to produce irradiated food for export. Health concerns surrounding the consumption of irradiated food, how-ever, have resulted in it being banned by many of Malaysia's largest export markets. Japan, the major importer of Malaysian prawns, and Germany and Australia too, have banned irradiated food. And in November 1988, more than 50 consumer organizations from the Asia-Pacific region met in Australia and called for a worldwide moratorium on the use and development of food irradiation until doubts about its safety have been resolved. Although Great Britain recently lifted its ban on irradiation, the London Food Commission, a food policy re-search group, said it is considering a boycott of prawns and shrimp from Southeast Asia.

The evidence connecting irradiation with negative health effects is mounting. A study in India, for instance, revealed that when malnourished children were fed newly-irradiated wheat, they developed abnormal blood cells. Other tests show that consuming irradiated food induces testicular tumors, kidney damage and chromosomal abnormalities in lab animals.

One of the purported benefits of food irradiation, longer shelf life, may produce problems as well. Irradiation can kill off the bacteria that ordinarily signal spoilage of foods (through foul odor, taste or texture) but may allow the survival of other dangerous though less easily detected bacteria, such as the botulin toxin. Irradiation also destroys most vitamins but cannot destroy aflatoxin, a fungi which causes cancer, and which can multiply rapidly when competing fungi are killed during the irradiation process. Studies have shown that fruits and vegetables are easily damaged by irradiation and may rot even faster than non-irradiated produce.

According to APPEN Features, consumer groups in Malaysia, including CAP, have called for a ban on irradiation.

� Katherine Isaac

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