Multinational Monitor

NOV/DEC 2005
VOL 26 No. 11


The Ten Worst Corporations of 2005
by Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman

Taking On Corporate Power - and Winning by Robert Weissman


Corporate Crime and Prosecution
An interview with Win Swenson


Behind the Lines

Corporate Crime and Punishment

The Front
Treading on the Taxpayer - A Bitter Deal for Mauritius

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Names In the News


Taking On Corporate Power- And Winning

by Robert Weissman

Corporate power has ascended to previously unimaginable peaks over the last 25 years.

All the more remarkable then has been incredible mobilizations of people, in communities around the planet, and between communities across borders, to confront multinational corporations.

Workers, environmentalists, public health advocates, consumer rights advocates and others have shown that, for all their power, multinational corporations can be defeated.

Campaigners and activists have succeeded at imposing meaningful restraints on corporate power. They have curbed abusive practices from bribery to predatory lending. They have imposed mandates on corporations, forcing them to take responsibility for the waste they generate and to test dangerous chemicals for health impacts. They have advanced worker rights to decent terms of work. They have created alternative sources of economic and political power, enabling generic manufacturers to compete with brand-name drug companies and generating markets for solar power.

Most victories are partial. They don’t solve everything, or even the entire problem campaigners seek to address. But they take the world closer to a place where people are treated with dignity, basic services are provided as a matter of right not privilege, ecological sustainability is respected, and power is democratized.

In this, the second part of our review of citizen victories over concentrated corporate power [see “Victories! Justice! The People’s Triumphs Over Corporate Power,” Multinational Monitor, July/August 2005 for the first half], we again celebrate these achievements.

They are presented with the same caveats as our first 25 profiles of citizen victories: We don’t claim these are the most important achievements over corporate power of the last quarter century, though we do think these were all landmark accomplishments. Nor are we making any effort to rank this list in importance — it is presented in a very rough chronological order, taking into account that many of these victories have unfolded over a long period, sometimes as long as or longer than the quarter century lifespan of Multinational Monitor.

India’s Generic Gambit

Its rapid economic growth in recent years notwithstanding, India remains a desperately poor country. For those with at least modest incomes, however, medicines are affordable.

The reason? The Indian Patents Act of 1970.

The Patents Act did away with product patents on pharmaceuticals, and led to the development of a thriving, competitive generic pharmaceutical industry that was able to drive down the price of drugs.

“The objectives” of the 1970 law, explains B.K. Keayla, convenor of the National Working Group on Patent Law in India, “were that there should be faster industrialization of the country and law should be designed to serve the public interest in a balanced manner.” And the law worked, Keayla says.

Before 1970, India was dependent on multinational drug corporations and subject to the high charges demanded by the drug companies.

But the legal change contained in the 1970 patent law broke the monopoly power of Big Pharma, and permitted Indian companies to develop local expertise.

Before 1970, India imported roughly 85 percent of its pharmaceuticals and made 15 percent domestically. Now the numbers have flipped, with India manufacturing approximately 85 percent of the drugs it consumes and importing the remaining 15 percent.

Low prices, driven by competition and efficient production, make drugs far more affordable in India than they would be otherwise, and have made Indian suppliers a crucial source of lower-priced pharmaceuticals for developing countries across the globe. The Indian price of ciprofloxacin, the antibiotic made famous as the best treatment for anthrax exposure, is about 1.5 percent of the cost in the United States. Indian drug makers now sell AIDS drugs for less than 2 percent of the price charged by the Big Pharma multinationals just a few years ago.

Indian drug companies such as Cipla, Ranbaxy, Hetero and Dr. Reddy now operate internationally, and export around the world, including to the United States. More than 250 plants in India meet Good Manufacturing Practice standards.

In 2005, India was required to adopt product patents for pharmaceuticals in order to be compliant with its obligations under the World Trade Organization. This means price-lowering competition for new drugs will be much delayed, unless compulsory licensing safeguards — authorizing generic competition while products remain on patent — are employed regularly.

Whether the Indian achievement in driving down pharmaceutical prices can be maintained in the future thus remains very much in question. Public health activists and the generic industry are working hard to ensure that implementation of India’s WTO obligations does not erase the country’s achievement in providing low-cost drugs.

Babyfood Justice

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 1.5 million infants die as a result of diarrhea every year because they are not breastfed. Unsafe water used to mix infant formula can lead to infections and diarrhea, the leading killer of children worldwide. Where water is unsafe, UNICEF says that babies are 25 times more likely to die if they are bottle fed.

The babyfood companies have tricked hundreds of millions of women into bottle-feeding their babies, instead of relying on safe and health-giving breastmilk.

Recognizing that this corporate intervention into the most basic of human activities was taking millions of innocent lives of the most innocent, a number of consumer and health organizations in the 1970s vowed to take action.

In the United States, INFACT launched a boycott of the leading formula maker, Nestle.

Globally, consumer and health groups formed the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN). Through IBFAN’s work, the World Health Assembly (the governing body of the World Health Organization, with representatives from all member countries) in 1981 adopted the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes.

But adopting a set of guidelines on how breastmilk substitutes should be marketed did not force any change in industry behavior. What has improved matters has been ongoing pressure from advocacy groups on babyfood manufacturers, and the adoption into law in many countries of the breastmilk substitute marketing code. At least 20 countries have implemented all or nearly all of the provisions of the code into law, according to IBFAN, with more than two dozen others adopting many provisions into law.

In 1984, the Nestle boycott was suspended, after the company promised to bring its marketing efforts into compliance with the international code. But by 1988, the boycott was back on, due to the company’s unwillingness to abide by the code in good faith. The Nestle boycott is now coordinated by the UK group, Baby Milk Action.

Although significant gains have been registered, the babyfood companies continue to engage in unethical behavior. Although marketing tactics have changed, the corporate effort to undermine breastfeeding continues.

“Most baby food manufacturers are continuing their unethical promotional activities whilst claiming to abide by the International Code,” reports IBFAN, which publishes a tri-annual report that monitors company compliance with the code. “They are increasingly ‘investing’ in health workers and health care systems, spending more money promoting their products than most governments spend on health education.”

“Companies know that if they persuade a health worker to recommend their milk, they have gained a lifetime’s brand loyalty. This is much more cost effective than persuading mothers individually. Advertising in hospitals implies that the product is endorsed by the health service: coupled with misinformation, this has created the false impression amongst mothers and health workers that many women cannot breastfeed.”

“Even more effective is the practice of giving free or subsidized supplies of baby milk to hospitals and maternity wards. This encourages artificial infant feeding, which interferes with lactation. Once a mother leaves hospital, formula is no longer free, the company has another captive customer, and the mother and baby are denied the best start in life.”

Essential Drugs

Prescription drug price, access and use are hot-button issues in the United States, where drugs make up only about 15 percent of healthcare costs.

In developing countries, by contrast, prescription drug costs make up a quarter to two-thirds of health care expenditures. And as much as 85 percent of prescription drug payments are out of pocket.

Given the much tighter budget constraints in poor countries, these facts mean that many people simply go without needed medicines, and many who do manage to pay suffer extreme financial burden. At the same time, thanks in no small part to heavy promotion and marketing by brand-name drug companies, lots of the money that is spent is wasted on inappropriate drugs irrationally prescribed.

Against this backdrop, health activists in the 1970s innovated the concept of an essential drugs list — a limited set of medicines selected based on disease prevalence, evidence on efficacy and safety, and comparative cost-effectiveness.

In 1977, the World Health Organization (WHO) adopted its first essential drugs list of 208 medicines, a grouping found to be sufficient to treat nearly all serious communicable and non-communicable diseases.

The idea behind the list — which WHO continues to maintain and update periodically — is that governments should at least give preference to these medicines over others; encourage doctors to prescribe drugs from the list rather than alternatives that may be inappropriate, dangerous or unnecessarily costly; and find ways to supply these medicines to citizens.

Most countries now adapt the WHO list to meet their own circumstances — more than 150 have such lists. In about two thirds of cases, public sector procurement is limited to drugs on the national essential drugs list.

In no small part as a result, access to essential drugs almost doubled between 1977 to 1997, according to Margaretha Helling-Borda, a former director of WHO’s Action Program on Essential Drugs. “But one-third of the world’s population still does not have regular access to essential medicines,” she notes.

Nowhere was the essential drug concept used more aggressively than in Bangladesh.

There, an aggressive National Drug Policy went into place in 1982. Drugs that did not appear on the essential drugs list could not be imported or sold, on the grounds that they were unnecessary and would require waste of national resources.

As Dr. Zafrullah Chowdhury, who helped pioneer the policy, explains, “We eliminated bad drugs with this very sweeping policy very quickly. In two months time, we eliminated 2,000 drugs.” The results were widely understood, Chowdhury says. “Overnight, people also realized that the price of the drugs had fallen by half. That was a shock. Better medicine at half the price.”

Under pressure from the pharmaceutical multinationals and the U.S. government, the Bangladesh policy would eventually be weakened — Chowdhury estimates it is 60 percent intact. But the policy remains a significant success. When the policy first went into effect, “only about 10 percent [of people in Bangladesh] had access to modern medicine. Today, more than 45 percent of the people have access to modern medicine.”

Pittston Coal Strike

The class struggle does not heat up any hotter than in the coal mines.

In the late 1980s, the Pittston Coal Group decided to return violence and intimidation to the Appalachian coal fields.

The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) recognized this for what it was, and said they were ready to engage in class warfare, rather than surrender. The miners’ aggressive campaign, almost entirely nonviolent in the face of a militarized company stance, succeeded in considerable part.

The UMWA contract with Pittston expired in 1988, after which the company cut off healthcare coverage for 1,500 pensioneers, widows and disabled miners. The company engaged in bad faith bargaining for more than a year, making it impossible to reach terms on a new contract.

In April 1989, the miners went on strike.

Pittston responded by hiring scabs to work the mines, and a latter-day Pinkerton security force to guard its mines. The company spent $20 million security over six months in 1989.

The company benefited as well from a friendly judiciary. Virginia state court Judge Donald McGlothlin, Jr. issued an injunction limiting the number of pickets the mineworkers could post near mine entrances. When the mineworkers refused to abide by these restrictions, the judge imposed massive fines on the union, eventually totaling $64.3 million.

The UMWA responded to the Pittston provocation with a militant worker mobilization and a national solidarity campaign. They blockaded roads. Thousands of camouflage-wearing miners and their supporters were arrested. Wildcat strikes involving tens of thousands of miners broke out in support of the Pittston miners. Tens of thousands of supporters came to the UMWA’s Camp Solidarity. The city of Boston withdrew its funds from Shawmut Bank, because the bank’s vice chair served on the Pittston board of directors. The union organized a peaceful four-day occupation of a company preparation plant.

The high-profile campaign and refusal to buckle spurred the federal government to intervene. A federal mediator helped broker a final deal that was favorable to the miners, including on the crucial question of continuing to pay health benefits for retired and disabled miners and for

widows. The UMWA was able also to win some modest revenge against its nemesis, Judge McGlothlin. In a November 1989 election, UMWA District 28 President Jackie Stump won a stunning write-in victory over the judge’s father in an election for state representative, by a 2-to-1 margin. The union also ultimately escaped from the fines imposed by Judge McGlothlin, with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that punitive fines could only be imposed through criminal proceedings, with defendants given the right to a jury trial.

Banning the Global Waste Trade

“I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to the fact that ... underpopulated countries in Africa are vastly under-polluted.”

At Multinational Monitor, we think this 1991 statement from Lawrence Summers, then-World Bank chief economist and currently president of Harvard University, is so remarkable that we named an award for outlandish statements or behavior after Summers.

But while Summers later said his comment was intended to be ironic and provocative, it does in fact express the logic of corporate globalization. Indeed, the 1980s saw the growth of a thriving global trade in hazardous waste, with rich countries shipping toxic waste to poor countries where it could be cheaply disposed of (and often simply dumped).

In 1986, the issue catapulted to international consciousness. The city of Philadelphia chartered a cargo ship named the Khian Sea to dispose of 14,000 tons of incinerator ash. For two years, the ship sought a country that would accept the waste. In 1988, the Khian Sea dumped 4,000 tons of its toxic load on a Haitian beach. The Haitian government ordered the dumping stopped and the toxic waste loaded back on the ship, but the Khian Sea slipped away. The ship traveled the globe looking for a place to dump its load, even changing its name along the way. But Greenpeace activists notified countries of the impending hazard, and none agreed to permit the ship to dock. Eventually, the Khian Sea dumped its waste at sea.

In 1989, 118 nations signed the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Waste and their Disposal. But environmental activists and the African countries that were recipients of so much waste denounced the treaty as ineffectual. The goal shouldn’t be to control the waste trade, they argued, but to ban it. Greenpeace tracking of waste deals showed they actually increased after the Basel Convention was signed.

In 1991, the members of the Organization of African Unity sought to address the problem on their own, adopting the Bamako Convention banning the import of hazardous and nuclear waste. Other developing country groupings followed this example.

Meanwhile, developing countries insisted a global ban needed to be enacted. At the first conference of the parties to the Basel Convention, the head of the Indian delegation said, “You industrialized countries have been asking us to do many things for the global good — to stop cutting down our forests, to stop using your CFCs. Now we are asking you to do something for the global good — keep your own waste.” Then, in 1994, overcoming objections from the United States, other rich countries and industry groups such as the International Chamber of Commerce, developing countries succeeded in winning amendments to the Basel treaty banning waste shipments from rich countries to developing nations.

The Basel Ban introduced a modicum of environmental justice into global affairs and transgressed dominant free trade orthodoxy. It also places pressure on rich countries to stop generating so much toxic waste.

“The progressive closure of the global escape valves for cheap and dirty solutions to our waste crisis provides incentives for industry to internalize the very real costs incurred by the act of generating toxic wastes in the first instance,” explains Jim Puckett, a former Greenpeace campaigner who is now with the Seattle-based Basel Action Network.

Providing Civil Justice

Although Big Business has relentlessly attacked the U.S. civil justice system for the last quarter century or more, the ongoing operation of the trial-by-jury system has had diverse and far-reaching impacts both in retroactively compensating people for injuries and proactively making the world safer and cleaner.

As the Center for Justice and Democracy explains, lawsuits “make us safer.”

“Lawsuits deter culpable manufacturers, polluters, hospitals and other entities from repeating their negligent behavior or misconduct and give them the proper economic incentive to become safer and more responsible,” the Center explains in its 2002 report, “Lifesavers.” Large verdicts often cause companies to improve dangerous products or end unsafe practices. The threat of adverse judgments, including the threat of punitive damages, deters companies from engaging in unsafe behavior. The documents that emerge in the “discovery” phase of litigation — when parties may demand information from their adversaries — often leads to public disclosure of unknown or under-appreciated dangers, and frequently provokes a regulatory response.

Privately, at least, corporate executives acknowledge the beneficial role of lawsuits. A 1987 study based on a survey of risk managers at large U.S. corporations, the industry-backed Conference Board found, “Where product liability [the legal doctrine making corporations responsible for harms caused by products they sell] has had a notable impact — where it has most significantly affected management decision-making — has been in the quality of the products themselves. Managers say products have become safer, manufacturing procedures have been improved, and labels and use instructions have become more explicit.”

In its “Lifesavers” report, the Center for Justice and Democracy lists dozens of safety reforms that have been achieved as a result of civil litigation. Among the safety reforms:

  • Playtex in the mid-1980s removed its super-absorbent tampons from the market, after litigation showed they caused deadly Toxic Shock Syndrome.
  • After a Maryland court ruled in 1985 that the maker of Saturday Night Special handguns knew or should have known that their chief use was in committing crimes, the manufacturer, R.G. Industries was unable to obtain liability insurance and stopped manufacture of the guns in the United States. The company went out of business in 1986.
  • After a 1993 lawsuit generated a huge verdict and focused national attention on how Domino’s guarantee of pizza delivery within 30 minutes led delivery persons to drive recklessly, Domino’s dumped its guarantee policy.

Nutrition Labeling

With obesity rates among children and adults in the United States soaring, an epidemic of Type II diabetes racing out of control, and growing public concern about eating healthier, but lots of confusion about which foods to choose, imagine this: things could be worse.

That they are not worse is a tribute to the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act (NLEA) of 1990, the culmination of a decade’s worth of advocacy work by consumer and health organizations, led by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, to overcome opposition from the grocery manufacturers.

The NLEA is responsible for the labels on the side of packaged foods, a dramatic improvement from the skimpy labels that preceded them. Although problems remain with labels — including defined serving sizes that are often much smaller than many consumers would expect — they do a very good job of conveying what is in packaged food, as well as key nutritional information.

Consumers who use the labels do in fact make better choices about what they eat. Professor Rodolfo M. Nagaya of Texas A& M University has found that consumers who use nutrition labels get fewer calories from fat, consume less cholesterol, take in smaller amounts of sodium and eat more fiber.

The NLEA was also designed to crack down on misleading health claims regarding food. By 1989, four out of 10 new food products contained a health claim — many, such as health claims for juices that were mostly sugar and water, with no scientific justification. The Nutrition Labeling and Education Act banned deceptive health claims and established a science-based framework for determining when such claims are permitted.

The system worked very well to stop misleading health claims through the mid-1990s, but legislative and regulatory rollbacks have since hindered its effectiveness.

Still, the NLEA remains a positive framework upon which consumer groups are trying to build, including by requiring labeling of restaurant food.

One recent addition to the packaged food label is a line for trans fatty acids, most of which come from partially hydrogenated vegetable oil added to foods. Transfats very dramatically increase the risk of heart disease. The addition of the transfat line to the label is spurring food manufacturers to reformulate their products to eliminate partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has found that removing partially hydrogenated vegetable oil from foods would save at least 10,000 lives a year in the United States.

Antarctica Off-Limits to Mining Antarctica represents about 10 percent of the earth’s surface, and plays a central role in regulating the earth’s weather patterns and ocean circulation systems. It is renowned for its beauty and pristine condition.

And its very pristine condition makes it desirable for mining companies.

The Antarctic Treaty, which came into force in 1961, demilitarized the Antarctic, promoted scientific cooperation and set aside disputes over territorial sovereignty. But it did not address mining issues.

In 1976, the parties to the treaty adopted a moratorium on mineral exploration. In 1981, they began negotiating over mining proposals, leading to the 1988 agreement on a convention to regulate — but permit — mining. Campaigning by Greenpeace, WWF-the Worldwide Fund for Nature, and others led Australia and France to reject the agreement.

That spurred negotiations over a comprehensive ban on mining on Antarctica. The United States, the United Kingdom and Japan argued against such a ban. Those objections were overridden. A deal was reached in 1991 to ban commercial mining for at least 50 years, and went into effect in 1998.

“Antarctica is the world’s last great wilderness, a continent of awe-inspiring beauty, and a vital international scientific laboratory,” said Beth Clark, director of the Washington, DC-based The Antarctica Project, after Japan, the last of the 26 Antarctic Treaty member nations, agreed to ratify the environmental protocol. “By establishing high standards for all human activities in the region, the Environmental Protocol goes a long way towards safeguarding Antarctica before it suffers from the human impacts felt over most of the rest of the earth.”

Fishing-Free Reserves

It’s not easy being a fish these days.

Just as aggressive development has devastated land-based species, so too have the fish taken a beating over the last century. Scientists have found that, thanks in large part to overfishing by industrialized fishing fleets, the population of large fish such as tuna, shark, cod and grouper has declined by roughly 90 percent over the last 50 years.

All kinds of fisheries management approaches are now being proposed to address the problem.

One of the most promising is the creation of marine reserves — “no-take” zones in which all animal and plant life is protected, forever.

The global leader in marine reserves may well be New Zealand. There, environmentalists waged a multi-year campaign that led to the adoption of the country’s Marine Reserve Act. Today, New Zealand maintains 28 marine reserves protecting 7.6 percent of its territorial waters. It aims to take the total up to 10 percent by 2010.

No-fishing zones do wonders for fish. The global experience with marine reserves “reveals that most well-enforced marine reserves result in relatively large, rapid, and long-lasting increases in the population sizes, numbers of species, and reproductive output of marine animals and plants,” according to the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans (PISCO), a research consortium involving marine scientists from four universities along the U.S. West Coast. “The average biomass, or weight of all animals and plants studied, is more than four times larger in reserves than in unprotected areas nearby. On average, the density, or number of animals in an area, triples, and the number of species is 1.7 times higher in marine reserves than in unprotected areas. In addition, the average body size of animals is 1.8 times larger in reserves than in fished areas.”

Not just the fish benefit. The public is welcomed and encouraged to enjoy marine reserves — through diving, snorkeling, taking photographs, swimming, kayaking, navigating through, picnicking on the land in the reserves … but not through fishing. In New Zealand, and elsewhere, the marine reserves have proven an unexpected tourist attraction. They are valuable areas for scientific research. And, somewhat unexpectedly, they’ve proved beneficial for fishers.

Fish populations flourish in areas surrounding reserves, increasing fish catch in those places. Fishing boats now linger on the edges of marine reserves, because those are recognized as the places with the most fish.

At least 23 countries now maintain marine reserves. Most are small, with a median size of less than 1.5 square miles, but some are large and significant.

In the United States, fully protected areas are in place in Maine, Washington and California, among other areas. California protects only a tiny portion of its waters — two-tenths of a percent — but an environmental coalition is working to expand the state’s marine reserves dramatically.

Marine reserves cannot be a sole solution to the problems of overfishing and other maltreatment of the seas, simply because there is little prospect of such reserves occupying a sufficient portion of planetary waters. But they can serve as a unique and important part of a comprehensive solution.

Writes New Zealand marine biologist Bill Ballantine, a leading advocate for marine reserves: “Marine reserves help maintain the intrinsic properties and processes of the sea, by keeping some areas free from all potentially disruptive human activity. The concept is proactive, not reactive. There is no need to identify each potential problem, nor to wait for problems to occur. There is no requirement to show that a particular disturbance causes any particular level of damage. Some areas are kept free of all disturbance on principle.”

Forest Protection Up the Supply Chain

For two decades or more, eco-activists have waged a valiant struggle to protect forests in the U.S. Northwest and in the Canadian West. Countless protests, tree-sits and massive civil disobedience have slowed timber cutting in the region.

But by the early 1990s, a group of activists decided that confronting the tree-cutting companies wasn’t enough, and would not ultimately be a successful strategy.

In a campaign focused on protecting the Clayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, a new collaboration that would ultimately result in creation of the San Francisco-based ForestEthics decided on a different approach. Instead of targeting the timber cutters, they focused on the wood buyers. These companies, which maintain retail operations and care about their reputation with consumers, were much more vulnerable to citizen pressure. When these companies indicated that they no longer wanted to be buying clear-cut timber from ancient forests, the logging companies agreed to stop clear cutting.

ForestEthics has since used a similar approach to win protections for millions of acres of forest land in British Columbia and Chile.

ForestEthics and other environmental groups have also won commitments from major wood sellers, including the dominant home improvement chains Home Depot and Lowe’s, not to sell wood from endangered forests and to give preference to wood products certified as sustainably harvested by the Forest Stewardship Council. And they have convinced office supply stores like Staples to stock more post-consumer recycled paper, and make it more attractive for consumers.

ForestEthics is currently focusing on catalog companies, which send out 17 billion catalogs a year, demanding they stop using virgin paper. The top target is Victoria’s Secret (see, which mails nearly 400 million catalogs a year, using virgin fiber paper with little or no recycled content. ForestEthics charges that much of the paper is made from trees from Canada’s Boreal forest, which contains 25 percent of the world’s remaining intact forest.

“The Boreal forest is a key regulator of the world’s climate, and it is being turned into junk mail,” says Lafcadio Cortesi of ForestEthics. “Are we really supposed to stand by while Victoria’s Secret turns one of the earth’s few safeguards against global warming into catalogs?”

Sweating for Sweat-Free Goods

Low-paying jobs in cramped and unsafe working conditions, where worker rights are denied and managerial control is exerted through intimidation and fear, are a pervasive feature of corporate globalization.

That these facts are now so familiar is a testament to the achievements of the international campaigns against sweatshops and for worker rights. But the campaigns have achieved more than media attention. Sweatshops remain omnipresent, but on-the-ground organizing and international solidarity campaigns have scored some notable gains for workers on the global assembly line.

The global anti-sweatshop campaign probably came of age in 1996, when the New York-based National Labor Committee issued a report documenting that TV personality Kathie Lee Gifford’s line of clothing, sold in Wal-Mart stores, was made in sweatshops in Honduras. Gifford initially issued a tearful denial of the charges on her television program, “Live with Regis and Kathie Lee,” creating a media sensation. She later acknowledged the charges to be true, though she denied knowing about conditions in the factories where her line of clothing was made. The charges, tearful denial and ultimate promise by Gifford to support reform created a media sensation that brought unprecedented national and international attention to the sweatshop issue.

The Kathie Lee Gifford controversy followed years of hard work by a small number of activists in the United States and other rich countries working to support workers and worker advocacy efforts in developing countries. The GAP and Nike had been two of the early targets of these activists, with the GAP agreeing in 1995 to authorize independent third party monitoring of its overseas contracting operations. Nike has been much more grudging in acceding to demands to end sweatshops, but even it has made some significant improvements.

What these early cases highlighted was how the spread of sweatshops was the outgrowth of a global system of outsourcing and multinational efforts to escape responsibility. Increasingly, multinationals in the clothing and shoe business (as well as much higher end products) contracted out the manufacture of their goods. They benefited from super-exploited labor in the process, but disclaimed responsibility for conditions in the factories where their products were made. The anti-sweatshop campaign’s success turned on its ability to reverse that trend, to hold the brand-name companies responsible for what went on in those outsourced factories, and to sully the reputation of the brand-name enterprises with bad records.

Students on U.S. college campuses took up the call, and launched campaigns across the country demanding that their colleges and universities take responsibility for the conditions under which t-shirts, sweatshirts and other products adorned with school logos and names were manufactured. Under the banner of United Students Against Sweatshops, they held demonstrations, wrote detailed policy papers and staged sit-ins in university office buildings.

Students’ efforts led to the creation of the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), a grouping that administers a genuine system to promote sweat-free production. Nearly 150 schools are members of the WRC. They pledge to adopt a manufacturing code of conduct and work to include the code in contracts with makers of their logo goods, and ask licensees to provide the WRC with the names and locations of all factories involved in the production of their logo goods.

Other efforts to demand high-profile brands stop relying on sweatshops continue to gain ground, and to amass bulk buying power for sweat-free purchases. San Francisco in 2005 agreed to require city contractors to guarantee that the uniforms, computers and other goods they supply are not made in sweatshops. Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Newark, New Jersey and Albuquerque have similar laws.

Relying on vulnerable immigrant workers, sweatshops have proliferated in the United States at the same time they have grown overseas. Organizations like Sweatshop Watch have gained some important victories for mistreated workers in these assembly shops, and workers’ centers have provided important legal services for them.

Like many victories and achievements, these are all imperfect. At both the national and global level, comprehensive solutions remain, so far, out of reach.

Outlawing Bribery

Pay a bribe, take a tax write off.

Until 1997, that had long been the rule in Germany and other industrialized countries. These nations had not only tolerated bribery of overseas government officials, they had effectively encouraged bribery through tax policies that treated bribes like any other business expense.

But a wave of concern about the impact of corruption, and a civil society campaign that was supported by U.S. companies, changed that. In 1997, the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a grouping of the world’s rich nations, adopted an Anti-Bribery Convention, requiring countries to criminalize bribery of foreign public officials.

Corruption is a severe problem around the globe, but it takes its greatest toll in developing countries, where public resources are severely constrained. Not only does corruption divert public resources from productive use, it undermines democratic governance and impedes efficient functioning of both the public and private sector, including small and large business.

Corruption flourishes throughout much of the developing world because monitoring of government is weak and poorly paid governmental officials are more susceptible to bribes. However, as Dr. Peter Eigen, chair of Transparency International, an advocacy group that monitors worldwide corruption, noted at the time the treaty was adopted, the OECD Convention recognizes that a large share of the corruption in developing countries “is the explicit product of multinational corporations, headquartered in leading industrialized countries, using massive bribery and kick-backs to buy contracts in the developing countries and the countries in transition.”

U.S. multinationals backed the OECD treaty because they already faced restrictions on overseas bribery, thanks to the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. With the convention, the U.S. companies hoped to create a level playing field, in which they are not disadvantaged vis-a-vis European and Japanese competitors. The bribery treaty illustrated how unilateral restrictions on U.S. companies can be effective, not only at curbing U.S. corporate abuses overseas, but at turning U.S. multinational corporations into advocates of enacting those restrictions into international law.

Developing countries have adopted treaties against corruption as well. In 1996, the Organization of American States — which includes the nations of North and South America — adopted a Convention Against Corruption. The African Union adopted an anti-corruption treaty in 2003.

Only a naïf would say that the global corruption problem is anything close to being solved. But the adoption of anti-bribery treaties has established a worldwide norm that bribery and corruption are wrong, imposes some non-trivial restraints on bribes by multinationals and has helped energize a grassroots anti-corruption campaign led by Transparency International and others around the world.

Full-Time Strike at UPS

U.S. workers don’t go on strike very often anymore. Over the last decade, there have been just 28-and-a-half strikes a year involving more than a thousand workers.

And when workers do go on strike, it is often not on terms of their choosing, but simply a reaction to complete employer recalcitrance and refusal to bargain.

But in 1997, workers at UPS, the parcel shipping giant, showed that the strike remains a potent tool for unions that act strategically and militantly.

UPS had turned the use of part-time employees, who cost less per worker because they receive fewer or no benefits and are paid on a lower wage schedule, into a business model. Part-time workers averaged about $11 an hour, while full-timers made nearly double, about $20 an hour. In the years previous to the strike, 80 percent of the company’s new hires had been part-timers.

As UPS and the Teamsters union representing UPS workers went into negotiations, UPS sought to exacerbate its part-time hiring strategy with enhanced authority to contract out.

The Teamsters, then under the leadership of reformer Ron Carey, were having none of this.

After five-and-a-half months of failed negotiations, the union led the workers out on strike in August. The union had mobilized UPS workers for the negotiations and a strike, sending questionnaires to members before negotiations started — and which they used to establish demands at the bargaining table — and collecting signatures backing union demands. Workers embraced the strike, with very few crossing the picket line. Full-time workers walked the line for part-timers, out of solidarity and an understanding that the increase in part-time jobs ultimately threatened their own position.

The union masterfully framed the debate and conveyed its concerns to the public. The Teamsters highlighted the abuses of the UPS part-time strategy, showing how it unfairly disadvantaged workers — not a few of whom worked multiple part-time jobs at the company, but still only received part-time wages and benefits — and provoked extraordinary turnover (of more than 180,000 part-timers hired in 1996, only 40,000 were still with the company at the end of the year).

After 16 days, UPS capitulated on most of the contentious issues. It agreed to hire more full-time workers, and increase the number of full-time jobs that would be set aside for part-timers. The company also agreed to increase pay for part-timers, and backed down on pension demands for full-timers.

“Workers have shown we can stand up to corporate greed,” Carey declared after the union’s victory. “After 15 years of taking it on the chin, working families are telling big corporations that we will fight for the American dream.”

Explains Matt Witt, a spokesperson for the Teamsters during the strike and now director of the American Labor Education Center, “The UPS strike of 1997 forced one of the nation’s largest and most visible corporations to shift thousands of part-time jobs with few or no benefits to regular full-time jobs with health care and pensions, in the process focusing national attention on American corporations’ throwaway jobs strategy.”

M.A.I. Goes M.I.A.

Some time in the 1990s, a band of corporate-oriented lawyers came up with what they thought was a neat idea: observing a growing number of treaties affording strong protection to the trade in goods, they reasoned, why not develop an international instrument that would provide robust guarantees to cross-border investments?

Multinational corporations were globalizing at an increasing pace, and investing ever more heavily in developing countries — new foreign direct investment topped $300 billion in 1995, more than 50 percent higher than the figure at the start of the decade, with almost a third of the 1995 investment going to the Third World. At the same time, financial flows were speeding up, with lots of rich country money sloshing in and out of developing countries in speculative investment.

Investors, whether manufacturing or financial corporations, were very excited about the opportunities presented by a world without investment borders. But there were nagging concerns. It hadn’t been that long ago when multinational corporations saw their factories expropriated in many developing countries — and they wanted to make sure that history was not repeated. And, there were regulatory standards imposed on investors — sometimes just on foreign investors (like obligations to hire local people in top management positions), and sometimes on all investors (like requirements to meet certain environmental standards) — that interfered with profit-making.

To cure both of these perceived evils, the idea of the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) was dreamed up.

In 1995, the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD, the grouping of rich countries) began negotiations for an MAI. The idea was to reach agreement among the rich nations, and then permit developing countries to join the deal on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.

“The MAI would guarantee the investor and the investment fair and equitable treatment and full protection and security,” according to OECD documents made public after negotiations broke down in 1998.

In practice, the MAI would have afforded foreign investors not “equitable” treatment, but superior powers and privileges over domestic investors — not to mention actual citizens! — while imposing no responsibilities on them.

As Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch noted, the treaty would have provided speculators and multinational corporations:

  • the right to compete against domestic companies in all economic sectors;
  • the right to acquire any business or property in any economic sector, including natural resources and strategic industries such as communications and defense;
  • the right to convert currency and move money across borders without constraints, fostering the sorts of currency crises that collapsed the Mexican peso and caused the 1997 Asian financial meltdown;
  • the right to move production facilities without limit or penalty, regardless of the impacts on workers or the host community;
  • freedom from conditions (called performance requirements) placed on investment to counter speculation and ensure that corporations meet basic rules of conduct; and
  • the right to sue governments for cash damages (paid from public funds) for restitution if an investor claimed its rights have been violated under the agreement.

The investment agreement met a sudden demise in April 1998, when French negotiators refused to agree to provisions that they believed would threaten national cultural protections.

But underlying the collapse of the negotiations was a global civil society mobilization that would be viewed as one of the first, large-scale international campaigns to make effective use of the Internet. Advocacy groups obtained a copy of the then-secret negotiating text and posted it on the web (Multinational Monitor actually did the initial posting). Using the Internet, consumer, environmental, development and other organizations mobilized an international campaign that made the MAI a high-profile issue around the world. Canadian activists in particular elevated the issue to national prominence. With the veil of secrecy removed and increasing attention focused on the spectacular corporate power grab promised by the MAI, the negotiations were unsustainable, and broke down.

Saving Organic Standards

Organic food has come a long way in a short time. Just a couple decades ago, “organic” was associated with shriveled and spot-marked fruits and vegetables.

Now, it is the highest end of the markets for fruits, vegetables, meat and poultry, and has been growing in the United States at an astronomical 15-20 percent a year over the last decade. Organic sales in the United States in 2004 topped $12 billion.

Rapidly growing consumer interest in organics and environmental advocacy led in 1990 to passage of the Organic Foods Production Act.

But in late 1997 and l998, it appeared that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), acting at the behest of the biotech industry, chemical makers and other large agribusiness interests, would use the Act to undermine the organic market.

In December 1997, USDA proposed organic labeling rules that would determine what food could be labeled organic, and what could not. Although the National Organic Standards Board, an official advisory board created by the Organic Foods Production Act, had recommended application of a strict standard for organics, USDA demurred. Instead, it proposed to define organics so that crops that were genetically modified, irradiated or fertilized with sewer sludge could be labeled organic. Meat and poultry treated with considerable amounts of antibiotics, denied access to outdoors or fed up to 20 percent non-organic feed could be labeled organic.

Organic advocates greeted the USDA proposals with dismay and outrage. Labeling as “organic” food that did not meet generally recognized standards of organic would undermine consumers’ commitment to organic, they feared, and make it hard or impossible even for committed consumers to purchase genuinely organic food.

“Time and time again U.S. government officials have ignored citizens’ concerns and interests. The USDA understands that the public will never accept chemically contaminated or genetically engineered foods if given any real choice in the marketplace,” said Ronnie Cummins, national director of the Pure Food Campaign. “But Monsanto and the agri-toxics crowd are determined to undermine consumer choice and to cram their products down peoples’ throats if necessary.”

But organic advocates did not just rail against the rule. They organized.

They organized environmentalists and organic producers and organic consumers. Stores that sold organics encouraged consumers to submit comments to USDA.

Citizens sent in more than 150,000 comments to USDA, virtually all of them opposing USDA’s proposals.

Faced with this mounting opposition, USDA had little choice but to concede.

It was back to the drawing board. At the end of 2000, USDA published a revised, final rule, that went into effect in 2001 and was fully implemented the next year. The revised rule constituted a rejection of the agency’s position on virtually all of the crucial controversies surrounding the previous proposal.

The Spread of Smokefree Spaces

“The logical appeal of smokefree air is irresistible to politicians, commentators, even some smokers,” wrote an executive with the now-defunct Tobacco Institute in 1985. “It is the most effective way to reduce smoking.”

And for exactly that reason, Big Tobacco for decades has made opposition to smokefree laws a top priority. The industry has funded front groups, pushed for ineffective alternatives to smokefree spaces (such as heightened ventilation standards), supported junk science challenging the evidence of harms to nonsmokers from exposure to second-hand smoke, and invested millions in campaigns to oppose smokefree laws.

For many years, and to a considerable extent even still, the strength of the movement for smokefree spaces was at the grassroots level. Communities across the United States adopted smokefree rules for particular public spaces, then workplaces, then restaurants and then for all public places including bars. Big Tobacco fought these fights as best it could at the local level, while striving to pass state laws that would preempt local ordinances.

But the persistence of grassroots activists, combined with steadily increasing scientific evidence of the harms from second-hand smoke, conspired to overcome the powerful industry.

“Study after study confirms that smokefree workplace laws save lives, save money and make communities healthier, more attractive places in which to live and work,” explains Cynthia Hallett, executive director of Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights (ANR), the leading advocate for smokefree areas. “Secondhand smoke is the third leading cause of preventable death in this country, killing tens of thousands of nonsmokers each year, according to the National Cancer Institute. It is a leading cause of heart disease, lung cancer and respiratory illnesses.”

The Centers for Disease Control has found that, by 2004, two thirds of U.S. states had smokefree laws; and in the states without smokefree laws, hundreds of cities and towns have adopted their own ordinances.

In 1998, California went smokefree in bars (having made all restaurants smokefree in 1994). That move, which seemed so radical at the time, in fact started a torrent of similar efforts. More than 100 U.S. municipalities are now smokefree in workplaces, bars and restaurants, according to an ANR tally.

Smokefree areas has been one of the only areas in which the United States was a world leader in tobacco control, but other countries are now catching up and surpassing the United States in providing protections to nonsmokers. Latvia, Vietnam, Bulgaria, Italy, Iran, Russia, Australia, Uganda, Tanzania, Norway, Thailand and Pakistan are among the many countries that have adopted some variant of national smokefree laws. In Ireland, all workplaces — including pubs! — are now smokefree.

Cochabamba Claims the Right to Water

It may at times appear that they are just doing the bidding of multinational corporations, but the zealots at the World Bank believe the gospel they preach. And their core message is: markets work better than the public sector.

So, while it may have been a conceptual leap for a regular person to come up with the idea that drinking water service to residences and businesses should be provided not by the government but by private corporations, it was an obvious step for World Bank staff.

With similar ideologues in places like Margaret Thatcher’s Britain pushing for water privatization, a handful of multinational companies, mostly European, suddenly emerged to swoop in and take over municipal or national water systems in both rich and poor countries.

Although it may appear an apostasy to the World Bank, the water privatization movement has been an utter failure. It turns out that private water companies are less efficient than public ones, charging higher prices to serve fewer consumers. The water companies are generally not interested in serving the broad public — preferring instead to service elite, heavier water users — so they are both less equitable and less efficient.

Some water privatization efforts are collapsing simply because the privatizers are inefficient, and because they find that even with favorable contract arrangements they cannot make the kind of profits they desire.

But it is little solace to consumers that water service privatization efforts may, in time, fall apart, and the service revert to public control. And so a growing worldwide movement is emerging to challenge water privatization schemes before they take root, and to undo privatizations already undertaken.

The movement’s greatest success has been in Bolivia, where a surge of protests in Cochabamba, the country’s third largest city, kicked out Aguas de Tunari, a consortium of companies in which the U.S. corporation Bechtel was the lead partner.

The Bolivian government had signed a sweetheart deal in 1999 with Aguas de Tunari, guaranteeing the consortium a 16 percent rate of return per year on its investment. After the company came in, water prices soared — by as much as 400 percent. Paying for water suddenly constituted a major expenditure for people and businesses.

A broad civic coalition, the Coordinator for the Defense of Water and Life, formed to oppose the privatization. Within two months of the consortium taking over the water system, the Coordinator mobilized between 15,000 and 20,000 people to occupy the city’s main plaza. They called a general strike and blockaded roads. Protests continued and grew over the next several months; the government responding with violence, and well over a hundred protesters were injured. In April 2000, demonstrations intensified, and a 17-year-old protester was killed. Two days later, 80,000 people were blockading the streets, demanding the law authorizing the privatization be revoked.

In the face of this broad and passionate mobilization, the consortium and the government backed down. The company simply abandoned the city, and the government proceeded to modify the law to satisfy the protesters.

Preserving Biodiversity

The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in many ways represented the culmination of a surge of interest in environmental issues in the early 1990s.

Dozens of world leaders and thousands of delegates convened to debate environmental issues and adopt an ambitious plan, known as Agenda-21, for putting the planet on the path to sustainability.

But, in retrospect, the media and political concentration on that moment in Rio yielded little. The promises have been forgotten, and Agenda-21 remains little more than an interesting relic — a worthy document in many ways, but little more than an aspirational program that governments ignore.

One concrete thing that did emerge from the Earth Summit was the Convention on Biological Diversity. Now ratified by more than 175 countries (but not the United States), the convention commits nations to preserving biodiversity. Thanks to human impact on the environment, species are disappearing at somewhere between 50 and 100 times the natural rate, a figure likely to rise dramatically, thanks to forest and coral destruction and global warming, among other factors. Thousands of plants and animal species are at risk of extinction. Recognizing the complex and overwhelming threats to biodiversity, the convention calls for application of the precautionary principle — “where there is a threat of significant reduction or loss of biological diversity, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to avoid or minimize such a threat.”

Much of the convention calls on national governments to take steps within their own borders. It has helped prod governments to take steps to protect biodiversity, and made available some modest resources to developing countries for such purposes.

Thanks to campaigning by environmental groups and the insistence of African and other developing countries, a special protocol was adopted in 2000 to deal with a transborder issue: trade in genetically modified seed. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety was adopted over the heated opposition of complaints from agribusiness, the United States and other biotech exporting countries. It addresses the twin concerns that genetically modified seed may pollute the gene pool for a crop, thus eliminating natural plants without genetically modified traits, and eradicate the “centers of origin” where cultivated crops originally grew wildly and which remain crucial for replenishing the gene pool of cultivated crops.

Operationally, the Cartagena Protocol enables governments to inform a central clearinghouse that they refuse imports of genetically modified seed, with exporting countries bound to respect such notifications. Like most other citizen victories and including especially those in the realm of international treaty-making, the Cartagena Protocol is imperfect and fails to address crucial issues (notably, exports of seed allegedly for human or animal consumption). Nonetheless, it has helped put a brake on the efforts of biotech companies to spread their products across the planet and put at risk global biodiversity, and much more.

Solar Wins At the Ballot Box

The world urgently needs solar energy developed on a massive scale, if the worst effects of global warming are to be averted.

But a government-energy industry de facto conspiracy has worked to undercut solar from both the supply and demand side. Government investments in solar R&D have been slashed (outside of the Pentagon, the U.S. government now spends less than $100 million on solar research). Demand is limited because the unit cost of solar remains above that of subsidized fossil fuels. In this environment, independent firms have foundered; BP and Shell are now the largest solar researchers.

Activists in San Francisco decided to take action to overcome these obstacles to solar development. In 2001, with the California energy crisis fresh on voters’ minds, they placed on the ballot an initiative that directed the city to spend $100 million on solar panels, energy efficiency and wind turbines for public facilities. In November 2001, with 73 percent of the vote, San Franciscans approved Proposition B, a $100 million bond initiative.

Prop B promised to pay for itself, by combining the rapidly accrued payback from investments in energy efficiency with expenditures on solar.

“Solar may be expensive, but energy efficiency is cheap,” explains the Vote Solar Initiative. “Wind power is, in many places, extremely cost competitive with other energy sources. The trick is to develop some projects with shorter payback periods, bundle them with solar, and evaluate the costs on a whole-project basis.”

Large-scale expenditures on solar help drive down costs, too. “In San Francisco’s case,” explains the Vote Solar Initiative, “the size of the project was not just for bragging rights: lowering costs through economies of scale and the promise of developing a local solar manufacturing base were practical arguments for thinking big.”

Economies of scale are even more important on an aggregate basis. If enough municipalities and other large-scale energy purchasers follow the San Francisco model, solar efficiencies will grow and per unit prices will come down.

The solar initiative won a major victory at the end of 2005, with the California Public Utilities Commission announcing plans for a “California Solar Initiative,” a 10-year, $3.2 billion solar incentive program to develop 3,000 megawatts of solar across the state.

Science for Women

Drug companies don’t like to do tests on women and children.

But they don’t mind subjecting them to drugs for untested purposes. Or, stated differently, they don’t mind doing uncontrolled tests on the general population of women and children.

Some health advocates don’t think this is such a good idea.

When the drug manufacturer Wyeth sought in the early 1990s authorization to market hormone pills to women for the purpose of reducing heart disease — although there was no evidence from randomized clinical trials to show that it was effective for this purpose — the National Women’s Health Network and Public Citizen’s Health Research Group objected.

At the same time, women’s health groups were highlighting the failure of drug companies to test pharmaceuticals on women. They were also raising questions about whether drugs and dosages tested on men had different effects on women, and about the effect of drug interactions, including for example with contraceptive pills, on women. They complained that medical researchers conducted their studies on men, though the results were generalized to men and women alike. For example, as the National Institutes of Health states, “many of the largest studies of heart disease did not include women, despite the fact that heart disease is the number one cause of death in women overall. These studies were aimed at prevention of early heart attacks and were thus focused on men, in whom heart disease manifests approximately 10 years earlier than women.”

These twin concerns led to the launch of the Women’s Health Initiative at the National Institutes of Health in 1992. The Women’s Health Initiative featured two components: a randomized clinical trial and an observational study. The clinical study was the largest, most definitive long-term study of postmenopausal women’s health ever undertaken in the United States.

The hormone prong of the study had explosive impact. Not only did long-term hormone therapy for post-menopausal women fail to reduce the risk of heart disease, it actually increased it, as well as the risk of breast cancer, stroke and pulmonary embolism.

The study disproved years of bad science peddled by Wyeth — which through elaborate marketing campaigns had succeeded in inducing millions of women to undertake long-term hormone use.

The study also revealed broader truths: the need for unvarnished, independent research into the safety and efficacy of the drugs pushed by gigantic marketing machines.

“Hormone replacement therapy is not the only therapy being over-promoted by drug companies to healthy people,” says Cindy Pearson of the National Women’s Health Network. “Pharmaceutical companies have bought physicians, have bought scientists and have bought clinical medicine. Science must be separated from advertising.”

“The lesson we need to learn for the future is that we need unbiased research. We need to remove drug company influence from all medical education. And pharmaceutical interventions should not be inflicted on healthy people until these interventions are proven safe and effective in randomized controlled trials.”

Arsenic No More

The dangers of arsenic are immortalized in everything from Shakespeare’s work to Joseph Kesselring’s Arsenic and Old Lace.

But for two decades it was used as a preservative in pressure-treated wood in the United States, with the arsenic imported from China, where it is manufactured in dangerous conditions.

Arsenic-treated wood had been banned or strictly regulated in Japan, Germany, Australia and other countries, the Healthy Building Network notes. But, “despite evidence that arsenic was leaching into groundwater and contaminating land, each year nearly 6.4 billion board feet of wood treated with a chromium-copper-arsenic (CCA) formula was created, fueling the growth of a $4 billion industry.”

For years, U.S. environmentalists had urged the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to address the hazards of arsenic in wood, but to no avail.

That changed after a campaign spearheaded by the Healthy Building Network.

The campaign made two key moves. First, it highlighted the use of pressure-treated wood in playgrounds, and the risks to children. Studies by the Healthy Building Network and the Environmental Working Group found that an area of arsenic-treated wood the size of a four-year-old’s hand contains an average of 120 times the amount of arsenic EPA allows in a 6 ounce glass of water. Some of the arsenic rubs off playground equipment onto children’s hands and is absorbed and ingested when children put their hands into their mouths.

Second, the campaign looked to pressure points other than the Environmental Protection Agency. It filed a petition with the Consumer Product Safety Commission to remove arsenic-treated wood from playgrounds. It also demanded Home Depot and Lowe’s — which between them sell the vast majority of pressure-treated wood in the United States — stop selling such wood.

Organized by Clean Water Action, tens of thousands of consumers sent postcards to the companies urging them to stop selling arsenic-treated wood. The campaign also launched a paid advertising campaign against Home Depot, contrasting the use of arsenic-treated wood in playgrounds with the prohibition on arsenic wood that had been instituted by most of the nation’s premier zoos.

“We wanted to draw public attention to the fact that children were permitted to eat and play on poisoned wood, but it was considered too dangerous for zoo animals,” says Paul Bogart of the Healthy Building Network.

The combined agitation achieved rapid success. In 2002, within a year of the campaign’s initiation, the EPA announced that the manufacture and sale of arsenic-treated wood for most residential uses would cease by the end of 2003.

“The wood treatment industry and the EPA finally reached the commonsense conclusion that the best way to protect kids from arsenic wood was not to affix a poison label to it, but to eliminate it,” says Bogart.

“This victory proves that when citizens demand safe choices and healthy alternatives, manufacturers, retailers and governments listen,” says Lynn Thorp, of Clean Water Action.

Reaching for Sustainability

The Precautionary Principle is an idea whose time has come.

As the world now faces unfathomable hardship from a global warming phenomenon that could have been avoided or least drastically lessened with preventative action, there is no longer a credible case, if there ever was, against the Precautionary Principle.

The Precautionary Principle directs that where public health and environmental protection is at stake, the proponents of an activity bear the burden of showing it is safe. Rather than passively accept technological and other choices made by corporations, society should consider alternatives to proposed activities, and opt for the safest option, including the possibility of doing nothing.

It is a commonsense doctrine, already embedded in many policies, such as the requirement that pharmaceuticals be shown to be safe before being permitted on the market.

But it is one facing enormous resistance from Big Business as pressure grows to apply the Precautionary Principle to environmental risks.

The European Union is fast outdistancing the world in implementation of the Precautionary Principle.

In perhaps the most important manifestation, in May 2003, the EU formally proposed its REACH — Registration, Evaluation and Authorization of Chemicals — policy. In basic outline, REACH will require companies to provide evidence regarding the toxicity of their products and information about how humans or the environment might be exposed to them. For chemicals produced in large amounts or that are especially toxic, government experts will evaluate the safety of the chemicals — a process that might lead to bans of certain uses of a chemical. Especially toxic chemicals — carcinogens, mutagens, reproductive toxicants and chemicals that persist and accumulate in the environment — will require affirmative authorization, with regulators maintaining the authority to force transitions to safer, substitute products.

This policy contrasts with past approaches in Europe — and continuing policy in the United States — which permits companies to keep dangerous chemicals on the market, absent a governmental showing that they are hazardous. Under REACH, the burden rests on industry, not government, and chemical peddlers must make an affirmative showing that they are selling a safe product.

Much of the chemical industry despises REACH and is working aggressively to thwart it, including by employing the U.S. government to lobby to undermine it.

As a result, the policy has been weakened, and continues to be the subject of major policy disputes. The Europeans remain on track to implement REACH in 2007, but what exactly they will achieve remains very much uncertain.

Taking on Predatory Lending

Too often, poor people can’t win for losing. In the perverse modern-day economy, poor people are simultaneously denied credit and offered more credit than they need.

Actually, this apparent paradox isn’t so hard to understand.

While mainstream financial institutions do their best to avoid poor and minority neighborhoods in the provision of standard forms of credit (“redlining” and its variants), lenders also seek to exploit the poor by providing them with loans and credit at super-high interest rates (“predatory lending”). As predatory lending — including high-rate (“subprime”) mortgage loans, payday loans and refund anticipation loans — has grown into a sophisticated, high-return and nationalized market, many of the same businesses that underserve poor neighborhoods with standard mortgages, small business loans and other forms of credit and banking services are getting into the predatory lending business.

But not without resistance from the affected communities. The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and others have been working, with considerable success, to curb the predatory lenders and to establish local and state rules to curb their abuses.

Predatory loans include mortgage loans with both high interest rates and extensive extra fees attached; payday loans — short-term loans in anticipation of a paycheck, that may charge interest rates over 1,000 percent on an annual basis; and refund anticipation loans — loans from tax preparers, made in anticipation of a tax rebate, at interest rates that sometimes exceed 700 percent.

Subprime refinance and home purchase loans rose more than 1,000 percent in the 1990s, and continue to skyrocket.

The National Consumer Law Center has documented how refund anticipation loans alone drained over $1 billion in loan fees, plus $389 million in other fees, from the wallets of more than 12 million U.S. taxpayers in 2003.

Poor people get stuck with rip-off mortgage deals because regular banks and credit agencies don’t make regular mortgage services easily available, and often misdirect minority borrowers to “subprime” loans without regard to their credit record. Payday loans, refund anticipation loans and similar instruments have proliferated because mainstream lending institutions won’t make available small amounts of credit for short-term need.

To forestall this organized theft from poor people, ACORN and allied organizations have taken on the predatory lenders directly, and campaigned for legal protections.

Subprime lenders Ameriquest, Associates (now owned by Citigroup), Household International and its subsidiaries Household Finance and Beneficial (now owned by HSBC Holdings) and Wells Fargo are among the operations that have agreed to substantial reforms as a result of community group mobilization.

Following two years of an ACORN-led campaign — including a 2,000 person march to company headquarters in 2004, interventions at shareholder meetings, and ongoing litigation — Wells Fargo announced some notable reforms in August 2005. These included limits on certain lending charges and elimination of mandatory arbitration clauses for loan disputes.

ACORN applauded these changes. “However,” said Maude Hurd, ACORN’s national president, “Wells still needs to compensate the families and communities its predatory lending has hurt. In addition, these business practice changes must be made permanent and enforceable by court order. Otherwise, Wells could revert to its old ways of doing business.”

In a September 2005 report, ACORN documented that, when receiving a loan from one of Wells Fargo’s lending companies, African-Americans were 5.3 times more likely than whites to receive a subprime loan, and Latinos were 3.4 times more likely than whites.

Meanwhile, community groups are winning legislation in an increasing number of states and localities to restrict predatory lending. New Jersey, New Mexico, Arkansas, Texas, Connecticut and Massachusetts are among the states where activists have registered victories. Signed into law in August 2004, the Massachusetts law is among the most far-reaching laws. Its provisions include a prohibition on prepayment penalties, a requirement that borrowers receive housing counseling on the advisability of the loan, and a limitation on the amount of fees financed into the loan.

Computer Take-Back Campaign

With technology racing ahead, computers become obsolete about every three years. You can hold on for longer, but if you go much beyond five years you’ll soon find your machine unable to apply the latest technological wizardry, which quickly comes into everyday usage.

As a result of this speedy obsolescence, discarded computers are piling up. Consumers and businesses in the United States now discard tens of millions of computers every year. The Environmental Protection Agency says e-waste is about 1 percent of the global trash total. Computers contain a lot of bad stuff: about 40 percent of the heavy metals, including lead, mercury and cadmium, in landfills come from electronic equipment discards.

Making matters still worse, as the Seattle-based Basel Action Network has documented, lots of computer waste is shipped to developing countries, often in the guise of “recycling,” where there is limited capacity to manage the toxic components of computer waste.

Recognizing a growing problem, a coalition of environmental, health and labor organizations joined together in 2001 to launch the Computer Take Back Campaign. The campaign developed a platform embodied in a simple theme: “Take it back, Make it clean. Recycle responsibly.” In other words, computer makers should take responsibility for disposal of the computers they have sold; computers should be manufactured to reduce and then eliminate toxic components; and recycling efforts must constitute legitimate recycling, not covert disposal, with workers given proper safety protections and the right to organize.

In general, between the top two computer makers, Hewlett-Packard has been much readier to take responsibility for computer waste, with Dell a laggard. The campaign has focused on Dell, the industry leader, to force it to set a positive industry standard. A 2003 report from the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition and the Computer Take Back Campaign, for example, showed how HP had in place a relatively efficient and transparent recycling operation, while Dell was relying on “Unicor, a publicly subsidized prison industrial operator, [which] used practices disturbingly similar to those found in developing nations.”

At Dell’s 2002 shareholder meeting, Michael Dell stated that he “hasn’t seen the consumer demand” for computer take-back, and saw no reason to act in the absence of consumer demand.

Thanks to the campaign’s work, that would change. The campaign has extensively documented the harms from computer waste and disposal, and mobilized individual and institutional consumers to demand Dell take responsibility for disposal and/or recycling of the computers it sells; and used shareholder, publicity and a range of other tactics to put pressure on Dell. It launched (referring to Dell CEO Michael Dell) to educate college students about Dell’s environmental practices and encourage them to demand better from the company.

The campaign has had an impact. Dell agreed to take back 50 percent more computers in fiscal year 2005 than in the previous year, a goal it met, and to increase that total by 50 percent in fiscal year 2006. Dell says it supports the precautionary approach, and is working to phase out use of lead and dangerous components in its machines. The company also agreed to end the use of prison labor for recycling.

Canceling Third World Debt

Since the 1980s, and earlier for some countries, much of the Third World has been mired in the debt trap: Thanks to borrowed money that was misspent on failed megaprojects, or diverted by dictators for corrupt purposes, these countries accumulated sizeable foreign debts. When interest rates spiked in the 1980s, the size of debts exploded.

Many countries have struggled just to make interest payments, with no serious prospect of ever paying off the loans. Countries have paid back much more than they ever borrowed, but because of the effect of compound interest, find themselves owing ever more. And still, the countries must allocate big chunks of their annual gross domestic product, and very significant portions of government budgets, to make payments on the debt.

They also find themselves needing new loans to pay off the old ones, which means constant negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and continual efforts to adapt economic policy to the IMF’s preference for free-market fundamentalism.

Everyone who understands what is going on knows Third World debts, especially in the poorest countries, are unsustainable.

Periodically, the rich countries and the IMF and World Bank undertake efforts to recalibrate the debts, lowering the amounts owed — but always making sure that the basic debt servitude relationship persists.

As the millennium approached, groups around the world formed “Jubilee” campaigns, urging a more fundamental abolition of Third World debt.

The immediate results of the Jubilee 2000 campaign — which pointed to the year 2000 as the moment for a policy response — were disappointing, with yet another debt re-write.

But the campaign did point the global spotlight on the damage caused by Third World debt. As campaigners persisted in demanding genuine debt cancellation after 2000, as more attention was focused on lowering living standards in poor African nations, and as many African countries were ravaged by HIV/AIDS and thus even less able to manage their debt burdens, momentum built again for genuine debt cancellation.

In 2005, the G-8 group of richest countries agreed to cancel the debts owed to the IMF and World Bank, as well as the African Development Bank, by many of the world’s poorest nations.

The deal falls far short in the countries it covers — 19 initially, plus likely 9 more (all of which have already passed through a devastating IMF/World Bank economic reorganization process) — but represents real and important progress in canceling 100 percent of debt from poor countries, without the imposition of additional harmful conditions.

It will release close to $1 billion annually in resources poor nations can use for development.

After the G-8 agreed on the debt cancellation package, IMF staffers sought to sabotage it, by excluding certain countries that had been promised a debt write off. International pressure led to the full deal being adopted in December 2005.

“We are relieved that the IMF board reversed a terrible proposal that would have delayed $650 million in debt cancellation for some of the world’s most impoverished nations,” says Neil Watkins, national coordinator of Jubilee USA Network.

“Pressure from debt campaigners across the United States and the globe and supportive governments led to this important reversal. We welcome the decision. We also serve clear notice that this agreement is only a first step on a long journey and we will continue to pressure world leaders to cancel the debts of all impoverished countries in the months and years ahead.”


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