Using Information to Confront Corporate Power

In 1991 the United Steelworkers of America, locked in a bitter labor dispute with Ravenswood Aluminum Co., decided to extend the battle beyond the firm’s plants in West Virginia. They sent several investigators to Switzerland to research the links between Ravenswood Aluminum and fugitive commodities trader Marc Rich, who had fled the United States in 1983 after being indicted for tax evasion, fraud and racketeering. The researchers documented that Rich controlled Ravenswood Aluminum through a series of intermediate companies.

The Steelworkers proceeded to stage protests against Rich and his other business operations throughout Europe, while also pressuring the Swiss government for harboring him. These and other actions eventually convinced Rich and his allies to install a new management team at Ravenswood that rehired the locked-out workers and negotiated a settlement with the union.

Ravenswood was a dramatic example of how strategic corporate research can be a powerful weapon in campaigns for economic and environmental justice. Simply put, strategic corporate research is the process of digging up information that can put a business adversary on the defensive and thus make it more inclined to do the right thing.

The Center for Comprehensive Corporate Research (CCCR), created in 1998 by regional community-organizing networks, promotes the use of strategic corporate research by community groups. CCCR’s founders – Midwest States Center, Northeast Action, Northwest Federation of Community Organizations, Southern Organizing Co-Operative, Western Organization of Resource Councils and Western States Center – encompass 50 groups in 29 states. CCCR’s primary mission for now is to work with groups affiliated with these six networks, but the Center hopes to eventually expand to an even wider range of groups. Meanwhile, the Center is open to sharing information on an informal basis with all progressive organizations.

CCCR does take on research projects itself, but also trains organizers in research techniques (emphasizing sources that can be accessed for free on the Internet) and in the development of effective strategies for using corporate research results.

There is a wealth of material available in the United States on just about any business entity. There is a lot more on publicly traded companies, of course, but even small, privately held firms have to divulge a fair amount to government agencies, which in turn make much of that data available to the public. Both private and public companies are covered in the trade press, in business directories and in specialized business databases.

CCCR helps groups assemble and use:

Lists of a publicly traded company’s largest institutional shareholders, which can help organizers identify public pension funds or university endowments that might be enlisted as allies to press a corporation to change its behavior. If such an institution declines to cooperate, it could itself be targeted, since it can be seen as profiting from the anti-social actions of the company it partially owns. A coalition of groups fighting Maxxam Inc. over its environmental policies (its subsidiary Pacific Lumber logs in old-growth forests) and its labor policies (its subsidiary Kaiser Aluminum has been the target of a Steelworkers strike for over a year) got several large institutional shareholders to vote for dissident board candidates at Maxxam’s last annual meeting.

Other affiliations of a company’s top executives or directors, which like the Ravenswood case, might reveal a link to a well-known corporate malefactor and put the company on the defensive.

Negative environmental compliance records in other parts of the country, which can be decisive in defeating permit applications for a controversial local project. The dismal record of Waste Management Inc. has been used by activist groups across the country seeking to block new projects by the trash giant.

Lawsuit filings involving a company, which often yield valuable nuggets of information that contradict the firm’s sanitized public positions. McDonald’s Corporation brought a libel lawsuit against two environmental activists in Britain in the mid-1990s for distributing pejorative leaflets. The fast-food chain claimed it was trying to clear its good name, but instead the two-year trial brought to light a great deal of embarrassing information about the company’s business practices and its environmental impact.

The poor job creation record of a company, which can be decisive in opposing an unwarranted request by the firm for government subsidies or tax relief. It can also show how companies abuse such government largesse. Recently, Pentagon contractor Raytheon Co. has been under fire by community groups in Massachusetts for taking tax breaks from the state in 1995 and then cutting thousands of employees from its Massachusetts payroll.

Data showing that a company is receiving government contracts, which can help pressure public officials to take action against labor law violations. This was a key issue in the struggle of the AFL-CIO Metal Trades Department against Avondale Industries, a New Orleans shipbuilder with numerous federal government contracts. Avondale refused to engage in collective bargaining for six years after workers voted for union representation. Litton Industries, the new owner of Avondale, finally agreed in December 1999 to recognize the Metal Trades Department.

There’s no shortage of corporate data in our information-rich society. The trick is to know where to find it and how to use it for progressive purposes.

 

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