The Multinational Monitor



Two Racisms at Texaco

"THIS IS INDEED A SAD DAY for Texaco. You must feel as sad and hurt as I do for our employees."

"This alleged behavior does not represent the way this company feels about any of our employees."

"This alleged behavior violates our code of conduct, our core values and the law. We have a special investigation conducted by independent counsel underway as we speak. Wherever the truth leads, that is where we'll go. Appropriate disciplinary action, including termination, will be taken against employees who are involved. We will not tolerate disrespect or prejudice in this company. Anybody who behaves like this will not work for Texaco."

Those were the words of Peter Bijur, chair and chief executive officer of Texaco, in a satellite address to company employees November 4, immediately after the transcript of high company officials making racist, disparaging remarks about African-American Texaco employees was reported in the New York Times.

Bijur followed those remarks two days later with an extensive statement in which he said, "I can tell you that the statements on the tapes arouse a deep sense of shock and anger among all the members of the Texaco family and decent people everywhere."

In his November 6 statement, Bijur announced a series of steps the corporation was taking to promote racial tolerance inside the company. Those included holding diversity and racial sensitivity trainings for all employees, creating a special committee of the company's board of directors to review the company's diversity programs and hiring well-respected retired Judge Leon Higgenbotham to assess Texaco's human relationship policies.

Civil rights groups were not satisfied. They threatened to launch a consumer boycott of Texaco unless it promptly settled the class-action discrimination lawsuit which had brought the tapes to light.

On November 15, Texaco announced a $175 million settlement of the suit -- the largest payment ever made in a racial discrimination case. $140 million will go to minority employees at the company, and $35 million will be allocated to restructuring company operations to provide better corporate opportunities for minority employees.

Yet even as Texaco was accepting responsibility in the U.S. racial discrimination lawsuit, it was escaping liability in an environmental racism lawsuit -- a case of far less notoriety, but even larger proportions. For the acts which generated this lawsuit, Texaco offered no apology whatsoever.

On November 13, a federal district court in New York ruled that it did not have jurisdiction over a suit brought by thousands of Ecuadoran indigenous people against Texaco for pollution of the Ecuadoran Amazon. The court ruled that the case must be heard in Ecuador, if it is to be heard at all.

The indigenous people had charged that during two decades of oil drilling in the Amazon, Texaco dumped more than 3,000 gallons of crude oil a day -- millions of gallons in total -- into the environment. The indigenous people say their rivers, streams and lakes are now contaminated, and the plentiful fish and wild game which once made up their food supply are now decimated. They asked in the suit that Texaco compensate them, and clean up their land and waters.

Texaco denies the indigenous peoples' allegations, but its defense in the New York court was that the case should be heard in Ecuador, where the pollution took place. The federal judge agreed with Texaco, finding that it would be easier to have the case heard in Ecuador, where many key witnesses and parties are located. The judge also stated that the case required the involvement of the state run Petroecuador (a partner of Texaco's in the Amazon operations) and the Ecuadoran government, and that they could only be properly handled in Ecuadoran courts.

No one, least of all Texaco, believes the Ecuadoran indigenous will find justice in Ecuadoran courts, however. Unless the federal judge's decision is reversed on appeal -- a very unlikely prospect -- the Ecuadorans' case is effectively finished.

There is no secret as to why the Texaco employees' and the Ecuadoran indigenous cases were resolved so differently.

As sincere as Bijur's repeated apologies for the taped remarks may have been, Texaco had long been on notice of discriminatory practices within the company. The two-year lawsuit had unearthed evidence of harassment of African-American workers and threats against employees who charged racial discrimination. Shareholders have for years pressured the company to hire more minority executives.

Bijur's contrition came in response to the negative publicity the company received and the potential boycott it was facing, and more generally as a result of decades of organizing and protest by civil rights groups -- protests which changed the U.S. moral climate so that it is now unacceptable to make statements such as those made on the infamous Texaco tapes.

Over the past decade, the Ecuadoran indigenous have themselves undertaken an impressive campaign to organize themselves and publicize corporate and government predatory practices in their territory. But given the dynamics of global power, justice for the Ecuadorans will require cultural, as well as political and economic, changes in the United States and other wealthy countries.

The burden rests now on industrialized country citizens to end the double standard which permits Texaco and other multinationals from escaping liability for the most heinous of abuses of people living outside of U.S. and other rich country borders.

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