1997 was a banner year for Corporate America. Wall Street soared to record heights. Countless corporations registered unprecedented profits. "The worry is that many companies are taking on cash so fast they can't spend it effectively," BusinessWeek reported earlier in the year.
Unfortunately, 1997 was also a banner year for corporate crime, pollution, corruption, union-busting and abuse of power -- a fact not unrelated to the year's record profits.
To highlight underreported corporate abuses, each year Multinational Monitor magazine names the 10 Worst Corporations of the Year. This year's band of miscreants includes polluters, alleged instigators of coups, human rights abusers, merchants of death, sweatshop operators, criminogenic companies and crusaders for dirty air.
Among the Ten Worst corporations is Decoster Egg Farms, which owns farms in Maine, Iowa, Ohio and Minnesota. This year the Department of Labor slapped Decoster with $2 million in penalties for violations of numerous health and safety and wage and hour laws. "The conditions at this migrant farm site are as dangerous and oppressive as any sweatship we have seen," said then Secretary of Labor Robert Reich. Labor Department officials alleged that Decoster's workers toiled for up to 15 hours a day, with no equipment to protect them from disease, even as they picked up dead chickens with bare hands. They lived with exposure to live electrical parts and inoperable smoke alarms. Often 12 peple lived in one 10 foot by 60 foot trailer. Overused septic tanks filled up, causing toilet contents to back up several inches into shower tubs.
The other corporations on the Multinational Monitor list are:
Elf Aquitaine, a French oil company which allegedly instigated a coup in Congo that deposed President Pascal Lissouba. Elf Aquitaine, which is responsible for about two thirds of Congo's oil output, had disputed contract terms with Lissouba, and reportedly objected to his negotiating with other oil companies.
Tyson Foods, the Arkansas-based chicken company which symbolized corporate corruption of the political process through its illegal gifts to former Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy. Tyson pled guilty in December to paying illegal gratuities and agreed to pay $6 million in fines and court costs.
Virginia-based Smithfield Foods, the recipient of the largest Clean Water Act fine in history for its improper operation of hog slaughtering and processing plants.
Philip Morris, the largest U.S. cigarette company and the leading corporate advocate of the June 20 deal with state attorneys general which would give the tobacco industry effective immunity from future lawsuits.
Occidental Petroleum, an oil multinational intent on drilling in Colombian rainforest -- on land considered sacred by the U'wa people. If drilling goes forward, the U'wa say they will commit collective suicide.
Nike, the Beaverton, Oregon-based athletic shoe and apparel company that has made both the swoosh and sweatshops famous. This year, well-documented reports of Nike contractor workers in Asia being underpaid, physically abused and exposed to hazardous work conditions were substantiated from an unlikely source: an Ernst & Young audit conducted at Nike's behest.
Columbia/HCA, the hospital chain which cut costs, slashed staff and put profits before patients -- and is now charged by federal officials with a "systematic corporate scheme" to defraud federal health programs.
TRW, one of the coordinating companies of America Leads on Trade, the corporate lobby to ram fast-track authority for trade agreements through Congress.
American Electric Power (AEP), a coal-burning energy company that was one the leaders of the corporate campaign against new clean air regulations. Tens of thousands of hospital visits and premature deaths are expected to be prevented each year because AEP and its allies failed in their efforts to undermine the clean air rules.
Some of the headiness over 1997's economic performance is fading as the Asian economic crisis threatens to weaken the U.S. economy and corporate profitability. But the Multinational Monitor 10 Worst Corporations of 1997 list highlights weak economic performance by large corporations on scores too rarely tallied -- decent treatment of workers, environmental preservation, respect for human rights, delivery of affordable and quality consumer goods and services and adherence to the law.
COPYRIGHT © RUSSELL MOKHIBER AND ROBERT WEISSMAN