Multinational Monitor

APR 1997
Vol. 18 No. 4


The Campaign to Eliminate the Separation Between Banking and Commerce
by Jake Lewis

The Case for Preserving the Separation Between Banking and Commerce
by Jonathan Brown

Conquering Peru: Newmont's Yanacocha Mine
by Pratap Chatterjee

Taiwan Dumps on North Korea: State-Owned Taipower Schemes to Ship Nuclear Waste
by Jonathan Dushoff


The Political Economy of the Occupation of East Timor
an interview with
Jose Ramos-Horta



Behind the Lines

Don't Let This Merger Take Off

The Front
Slow Motion Bhopal - Indecent Proposal

Their Masters' Voice

Names In the News

Trade Watch

Book Notes


The Front

Slow Motion Bhopal

Bhopal, India - The wells across the street from Union Carbide's infamous and now-closed factory in Bhopal's JP Nagar slum are brimming with water. But the lively, colorful bustle normally seen around community wells is strikingly absent. "These are poisonous wells," explains nine-year old Ramesh. "Nobody uses this water, not even for washing," he adds, standing atop the circular rim of the well.

Screwing up his nose as he leads the way to the second "well of death," little Ramesh talks of the problems of his people. "Water is a big problem for mother; piped municipal water is in short supply, and the water from these wells stink of medicine."

The medicine smell could be because of the toxic pollutants in the water, say environmental activists in Bhopal. Analysis of well-water samples sent to the Boston-based Citizens' Environmental Laboratory by the Bhopal-based environmental organization Bhopal Group for Information and Action in 1990 detected significant quantities of carcinogenic, and kidney and liver, toxins. Residents believe the contaminants leached into the water from the pits into which Union Carbide used to dump its toxic waste.

"The results are absolutely alarming," says Dr. K. Satpathy, director of Legal and Forensic Medicine at Bhopal's Gandhi Medical College. "With such high levels of dichlorobenzene [one of the contaminants found], there are bound to be health effects."

An official from Eveready Industries Limited -- formerly Union Carbide India Ltd. -- denies there is any link between the factory and any possible contamination across the street.

If the water is shown to be polluted, and the plant to be the cause, Eveready Industries Limited and major shareholder U.S.-based Union Carbide Corporation could face "severe liability," according to M.C. Mehta, a noted environmental advocate in the Supreme Court. The lawyer has been responsible for getting the country's high court to order the closure of entire industrial estates that were operating in gross violation of the pollution control norms.

"If cause and effect can be established in this case, Union Carbide can be severely liable," says Mehta.

Both Mehta and Satpathy say they are shocked more by the lack of response from the government than by the results of the water sample analysis. "It's Bhopal happening in slow motion, and nobody cares," says an irate Satpathy.

Because methyl isocyanate -- the killer gas which killed more than 4,000 and affected the health of nearly 500,000 more -- was used as a raw material by the company, traces of the compound are unavoidable in the waste. According to Satpathy, "These must be releasing into the environment slowly, even now."

Complaints about contamination had begun trickling in even prior to the gas leak of 1984. In the early 1980s, farmers who said their yields were affected by contamination from factory effluents had reportedly sought and obtained compensation from the company. But the disaster shifted attention away from the contamination problem. Now, 11 years later, residents have revived their demands for an inquiry into the possibility of contamination of the groundwater.

In August, the Bhopal Gas Affected Women Stationery Workers' Association asked the government to analyze the contamination. Other groups, such as the Bhopal Group for Information and Action and the Bhopal Gas Affected Women Workers Association, have also been actively working on the issue and are considering litigation.

Despite the activists' efforts, the State Pollution Control Board and the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests remain unresponsive.

The issue has never been brought to the Board's notice, says P.K. Banerjee, member secretary of the Madhya Pradesh Pollution Control Board. Even if it were formally presented to the Board, says Banerjee, "This has nothing to do with the Board; the people have to take up the matter with the municipality because it's about groundwater and it lies outside the factory premises."

Besides, says Banerjee, "If people find this water poisonous, they must only drink good water."

Mehta is highly critical of this attitude of the government. "The people seem to be running from pillar to post," he says. "The Pollution Control Board and the [Union] Ministry of Environment are totally ineffective -- they've failed to protect the environment, failed to take action against polluters, and they collude with the polluters," he says.

The company has been more pro-active than the government agencies in responding to the contamination. Eveready Industries has employed contractors to scoop up the toxic waste and dump it in an empty tank nearby. A source close to the company, however, maintains, "The waste is not toxic by any stretch of imagination. It's like salt and water or the saline soil along the beach."

Social workers working among the gas-affected people say the company may be destroying the evidence in the guise of cleaning up the dump site. "We want them [the company] to stop their work in the dump site," says Satinath Sarangi, an activist with the Bhopal Group for Information and Action who has been fighting to highlight the contamination issue. "In the meantime, we'd like a public investigation into the issue of soil and groundwater contamination and an assessment of the clean-up costs."

Activists hope that highlighting the contamination will frustrate Union Carbide's effort to distance itself from the industrial violence unleashed by the Bhopal pesticide factory. "Carbide clearly wants to distance itself from its Indian history," says Sarangi. But even as Union Carbide refuses to comply with Indian court summons for the criminal hearings against it, activists here hope that the new evidence on contamination may build U.S. public pressure against the multinational.

- Nityanand Jayaraman

Indecent Proposal

Stung by the AFL-CIO's $35 million grassroots legislative campaign in the 1996 congressional elections, Republicans have proposed a bill aimed at severely limiting the ability of unions to engage in the electoral process.

The "Paycheck Protection Act," introduced by Senators Don Nickles, R-Oklahoma, and Judd Gregg, R-New Hampshire, would make it illegal for unions to use any union member's dues for political purposes without written prior consent from that person.

Advocates of the Paycheck Protection Act claim that it is aimed equally at limiting corporate or union political expenditures. The bill's stated purpose is to "protec[t] individuals from having their money involuntarily collected and used for politics by a corporation or labor organization."

The bill states that it limits "any dues, initiation fee, or payment" collected from labor organization members and nonmembers as well as shareholders and employees of a bank or corporation "as a condition of employment ... for political activities." However, no corporation raises money from its shareholders or employees by charging them dues or fees "as a condition of employment."

Organized labor angrily opposes the bill, which it denounces as hypocritical, one-sided and an infringement on workers' rights.

Business groups, not surprisingly, are generally supportive of the bill, though Doug Loon, director of congressional affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, says business "still ha[s] some questions as to how the Act can and will be interpreted and ha[s] not come to a definite conclusion."

An attack on the First Amendment?

Unions operate on the principle that voluntary members may not take all the privileges of membership participation but decline the responsibility for equally contributing to carrying out the group's agenda.

Decisions affecting the collection and allocation of dues money and the endorsements of political candidates are put to a vote by union members, union representatives point out. If a union member objects to the policies and positions taken by her union, then she is free to participate in the democratic process to change those positions, or to resign membership.

In contrast, shareholders are rarely, if ever, invited to a shareholders' meeting where a list of political contributions is put to a vote. Likewise, consumers have no right to vote on how, for instance, the utilities they are forced to patronize spend money for political purposes. "Union members have more rights than shareholders, and unions are already covered by more reporting requirements than other organizations including the American Medical Association, the American Bar Association and the Chamber of Commerce," the AFL-CIO states in a position paper opposing the Paycheck Protection Act.

Workers' right to disassociate from political positions advocated by their union is more than sufficiently protected by the 1988 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Communications Workers v. Beck, asserts the AFL. Under Beck, no worker can be forced either to belong to a union or to pay funds that will be used for political purposes. Workers can retain the economic benefits of union representation and refuse to pay their portion of dues that would go to political purposes.

Republican backers of the Paycheck Protection Act respond that the Beck ruling is merely "reactive" to compulsory collection used for politics, whereas the Paycheck Protection Act is "proactive," since it requires union members to affirmatively consent to the use of dues for political purposes.

Union representatives say the real purpose of the bill is not to protect workers' rights or minority interests -- already safeguarded by the Beck decision -- but rather to silence the voice of the majority.

The bill "falsely implies that union members do not support their unions' legislative and political activities," says Peggy Taylor, legislative director of the AFL-CIO. Taylor cites a recent poll by Peter Hart Associates, which found union members "want the AFL-CIO and their unions to speak out in the political and legislative arenas" by a six-to-one margin. Hart Associates reported that 90 percent of union members --- including large majorities of members from both political parties -- said they agree with the AFL-CIO's positions on the issues raised by the labor federation in the 1996 elections.

Corporate contributions

The Republican chorus in support of the Paycheck Protection Act is "big labor bosses in Washington are spending big money to buy their control of Congress." But corporate campaign contributions in the 1996 election cycle vastly exceeded those of labor unions. The Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan, Washington, D.C.-based research group, reported in February 1997 that business political action committees (PACs) outspent labor PACs 3-to-1. Corporate money really made its mark in soft money contributions (unlimited contributions to political parties, ostensibly for party-building purposes), with corporate soft money contributions 17 times greater than those from labor.

Big business made $171.95 million in soft money contributions in 1996, or 92 percent of all soft dollars donated, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The sin companies led the way. The single biggest soft money contributor was the tobacco company Philip Morris, which gave $3.02 million, followed by Joseph E. Seagram & Sons, which gave $1.9 million, and RJR Nabisco, which gave $1.44 million.

"Even as unions are outspent by business interests, it is clear that the aim of the Paycheck Protection Act is to restrict unions' political role," says Taylor. "It is an obvious response to the pressure put on politicians when labor told the truth this past election about representatives in Congress who voted to cut Medicare, education and pensions."

- Danielle Knight




Mailing List


Editor's Blog

Archived Issues

Donate Online


Send Letter to the Editor

Writers' Guidelines