The Multinational Monitor

July/August 2001 - VOLUME 22 - NUMBER 7& 8

GE Can Be Beat

An Interview with Kathryn Mulvey

Kathryn Mulvey is the Executive Director of Infact. Since 1977, Infact has been exposing life-threatening abuses by transnational corporations and organizing grassroots campaigns to hold corporations accountable to consumers and society at large. From the Nestlé Boycott of the 1970s and 1980s over infant formula marketing to today’s boycott of Kraft Foods –– owned by tobacco giant Philip Morris –– Infact organizes to win concrete changes in corporate policy and practice.


Multinational Monitor: Why did Infact target GE?
Kathryn Mulvey:
We targeted GE as the leader in 50 years of the production and promotion of nuclear weapons in all phases of that business –– from design in the Manhattan Project all the way through testing and delivery.

MM: When did you start the campaign?
We began the Nuclear Weaponmakers Campaign in 1984, put GE on notice in 1985, and launched the GE boycott on June 12, 1986.

MM: When did the campaign stop?
We won and called off the boycott in April of 1993, when GE completed its move out of the nuclear weapons business. The sale of GE’s aerospace division to Martin Marietta marked a decisive final step in the reduction of GE’s presence in that industry. GE essentially got out of the production of nuclear weapons, and is no longer a driving force promoting nuclear weapons.

MM: What had they done along the way to lessen their involvement?
They had gradually reduced the proportion of their revenues that came from nuclear weapons production. When we targeted them in 1986, about 11 percent of GE’s revenues came from nuclear weapons. Shortly before the sale to Martin Marietta, it was down to about 4 percent. That came both from the growth of GE’s revenues and an actual reduction in the dollar volume of their nuclear weapons-related work.

MM: Why did you pick out GE as opposed to another nuclear weapons maker?
Our Nuclear Weaponmakers Campaign began in 1984 with broad public education around a dozen nuclear weapons producers. We later narrowed the pool down to three, and then picked GE. They were involved in more nuclear weapons-related systems than any other corporation. They were a huge weapons contractor, and had enough influence to increase overall demand for their nuclear weapons-related products. They had connections. For instance, David C. Jones, a retired chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was on their board of directors. They were a huge lobbying presence on Capitol Hill and a big money-giver to members of various armed services committees. Although they said they were only delivering on government orders, they were generating those government orders behind the scenes.

MM: Given the huge stake the company had in the nuclear weapons business, why do you think they got out of it?
: Infact’s campaign was one major part of it.

A corporate campaign like Infact’s that includes a consumer boycott is geared toward changing the cost-benefit ratio for a corporation to engage in abusive practices. At the time our campaign started, GE was seeing enormous benefits from their involvement in the nuclear weapons business, and the costs were low. Although many grassroots groups had been fighting the nuclear weapons buildup for some time, there wasn’t a coordinated national or international campaign focused on the industry. When a campaign like this takes off, it increases a corporation’s costs to do business.

One of the most effective tactics is to affect a corporation’s image. For GE, the slogan “We Bring Good Things To Life” is the core of their identity and image, and tied in with Jack Welch’s tenure as the head of GE. We were able, through grassroots techniques and the Academy Award-winning film, “Deadly Deception,” to expose the reality behind that image.

Corporations are also responsive to their own internal conditions. Fundamentally, it is individuals who are making the decisions either to push for more and more nuclear weapons, or to peddle tobacco to kids. When people inside the corporation are challenged personally over those decisions, it influences the entire company. In our campaign, we targeted the medical equipment division, because the contradiction between life-saving medical equipment and deadly nuclear weapons was particularly apparent. This corporation was simultaneously polluting the environment with radioactive and toxic waste from nuclear weapons production and selling medical systems to help diagnose and treat sick people, including people poisoned by environmental contamination. We worked to hold people in the company’s medical division accountable for the company’s overall policies. That created tension within the business.

During our campaign, the Cold War ended. So GE was in a place where they foresaw the potential for a shrinking weapons market. However, analysts looking at the corporation said that even if the market was shrinking, GE was in a position to take an expanding share of that market. That GE didn’t pursue its ongoing involvement in the nuclear weapons side of the business shows that Infact’s campaign helped to change the cost and benefit ratio.

MM: How did you target the medical equipment division?
We worked through individual doctors and endorsing organizations such as the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War and many religious organizations that have health care holdings. We organized among doctors and hospitals to divert sales from GE’s medical division. These were big-ticket items, costing millions of dollars. People both turned to other suppliers and in many cases engaged GE in a lengthy and costly dialogue about those purchases.
GE found their medical sales reps having to answer for what they didn’t consider their business. But it was their business: they were part of GE. It’s a crucial concept in corporate campaigning to hold all segments of the business accountable for the behavior of the parent corporation.

MM: Do you have an idea how much the campaign cut into sales?
: Sales losses are only one element of the financial impact of a consumer boycott. At the height of the campaign, there were over 4 million individuals boycotting and 500 endorsing organizations. For many of those individuals, the purchasing decisions were light bulbs and refrigerators. We were able to document at least $75 million in lost sales to the medical division alone. There were many more sales losses that hospitals were not able to publicize, and others where people cost GE a lot of money in the process of making a purchasing decision. It definitely totaled in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

MM: How did GE respond to the campaign?
One of the crucial ways they responded is by attempting to polish and bolster their corporate image. In the first four years of the campaign, we saw an increase of 400 percent in the company’s image advertising –– the warm and fuzzy ads that we’re familiar with from GE and now Philip Morris, describing the “good things” the corporation does. So they spent more and more money to improve their image.

Another way they responded is by training people all the way down the line — everyone from operators at their toll-free consume hotline to retail reps who might have to deal with the stores that were being pressured to take GE products off the shelves — and ensuring that they had a prepared response to boycotters.

MM: Did they respond directly to the arguments you were putting forward?
: Their basic strategy was not to acknowledge Infact’s existence or the impact of the campaign. But when they were pushed, or when it was clear that the boycott was on the table, their standard response was that they were delivering on government orders in “our open democratic society in the quest for peace” and that it was misguided to target GE over nuclear weapons policy. They also, of course, denied that the boycott had any impact. And yet, we got copies of briefing books and glossy presentations to medical representatives. It was clear that they wouldn’t be going to those lengths if it wasn’t having an effect.

MM: Did they ever meet with you?
: They didn’t meet directly with us. But endorsers and supporters of the campaign, primarily from religious institutions, met with GE personnel all the way up to the CEO.
They refused to meet when we asked. It seems that they took an approach of negotiating with Infact through our allied organizations. For instance, Jack Welch flew into Philadelphia by helicopter to meet with several religious orders about their support of the campaign. And the senior vice president of the medical systems division, as well as the head of GE International, met with a few people who were making major medical purchase decisions.

MM: Were you ever contacted by people inside?
We had access to some information from inside, but it was provided anonymously. Our campaign was focused on the nuclear weapons issue. We found organizations targeting other parts of GE, like NBC, which might share information with us. The most important insiders were people who had worked in GE’s nuclear weapons business. The ones that we had the strongest contact with had worked at the Knolls Atomic Power Plant in upstate New York. A few courageous whistleblowers from the plant drew attention to safety problems and the lack of adequate protection for workers. That story was told in “Deadly Deception.” The corporation retaliated against those people even before their stories were told. The film helped to get those stories out to a wider audience.

MM: Reflecting back on the campaign, what are some of the key lessons for similar kinds of campaigns?
The campaigns that Infact and other organizations have developed and run over the years share a few basic strategies to generate pressure on a corporation the size of GE. Corporations like GE, Philip Morris or Nestlé have enormous financial resources at their disposal, so we have to appeal to large numbers of people. The biggest thing we have on our side is the truth and information that the corporation is trying to keep hidden. Although the mass media is important, person-to-person grassroots local contact and work through already-organized constituencies are the best ways to get the word out.

Corporations learn from folks who do grassroots organizing, but they don’t have the human passion that really drives a campaign like this. That person-to-person contact is fueled by the experiences of people directly harmed and affected by the abusive practices of these corporations.

When we have that and the capacity to reach people at the grassroots, we can change the cost-benefit ratio for a corporation like GE or Philip Morris. We can affect their image and cause them to spend millions of dollars to try to repair it. We can create tensions inside the corporation, making it difficult for them to recruit the most qualified employees, and diverting their attention from their own business strategies to deal with our campaign.

It’s crucial that we learn and continue to develop our strategies at the grassroots because these corporations are certainly learning from each other. One of the big advantages that we have had in challenging the tobacco industry and Philip Morris is the millions of pages of internal documents that they’ve been forced to release to the public.

We know now, looking back at the early phases of our tobacco campaign, back in May of 1993, that Philip Morris was already contacting GE and looking to see what they could learn from a corporation that had been the subject of one of our previous campaigns. We activists also need to keep learning and developing our strategies.

The slogan
“We Bring Good Things To Life”
is the core of
GE’s identity
and image.
Through grassroots techniques
and the award-
winning film,
“Deadly Deception,” we were able
to expose
the reality
behind that image.
It’s a crucial
concept in
to hold all
segments of
the business accountable
for the behavior
of the parent
Back in 1993, Philip Morris
was already
contacting GE
and looking to see what they could learn from a
corporation that
had been the
subject of one
of our previous campaigns.
We activists also need to keep
learning and
developing our strategies