Friday, January 4, 2008

John Edwards: My Plan to Stop Corporate Abuses

The basic bargain of America -- that everyone should have a chance to work hard and build a better future -- is falling apart. Families are working longer hours, but skyrocketing education and health-care costs, the foreclosure crisis and stagnant incomes have made it harder for working Americans to provide a better future for their children.

Not everyone in America is struggling. Investors on Wall Street took home a record-setting $38 billion in bonuses this past year, even after losing millions in the credit meltdown.

In 1960, the average CEO made 41 times what the average worker made. But in 2005, the average CEO made over 400 times the average worker's salary. The share of corporate profits going to CEO pay has doubled since the 1990s. Meanwhile, the value of the minimum wage has plummeted 30% since 1979.

Don't get me wrong -- it is a good thing that some Americans are doing well. The son of working class parents, I have been blessed with extraordinary success in my own life and now want for no material thing. The problem is that the successes of our economy are no longer shared. Forty percent of all economic growth over the past 20 years has gone to the top 1% of American families.

The success of our own economy demands that we uphold our country's values: fair reward for work and opportunity for all. To meet these goals, we must renew America's basic bargain with the middle class and remove the stranglehold that entrenched corporate interests have on Washington.

The first thing we need to do is to make affordable, high-quality health care a part of the social compact. Not only are health-care costs putting a huge strain on American families and our competitiveness in the global economy, but a system that leaves 47 million Americans without health care is a moral disgrace. As president, universal health care will be my number one domestic priority.

Second, we also need to adapt retirement savings to the modern work environment. In the past, it was common for people to stay with the same company their entire career, and so it made sense for pensions to be connected to employers. Today, the average worker will probably hold jobs with multiple companies.

As president, I will create a new universal retirement account requiring every business to automatically enroll its workers in at least one plan: a traditional pension, a 401(k) or an IRA. Workers will be able to choose to have their contributions deducted automatically from their paychecks, and they will be able to carry these accounts with them from job to job.

We can't allow fundamentally healthy companies to go into bankruptcy just to avoid keeping their promises to employees, or to emerge from bankruptcy with millions for executives and nothing for workers. As president, I will ensure that corporations honor the pension promises they've made to workers, by giving workers a claim for lost pensions, just like lost wages.

Third, our companies should be run for the benefit of workers and shareholders as well as insiders. Today, too many companies in America are putting far too much of their earnings into excessive CEO and executive pay, when this money could be going to increased worker salaries, better benefits and investments in plants and equipment.

As president, I will immediately cap untaxed deferred compensation for executives. I will also give shareholders new rights and responsibilities so that they can call shareholder meetings, remove directors who aren't acting responsibly, and have a say on executive pay.

Globalization, technology and demographic change have transformed our economy. Corporations have adapted, but our basic bargain with America's workers has not. We are living in a 21st-century economy, but are asking our workers to compete with a 20th-century set of tools.

In order to fulfill our obligation to future generations of Americas, we must restore balance between America's corporations and America's working families. Only then will we be able to guarantee that anyone who is willing to work hard and do the right thing has the opportunity to share in our nation's prosperity.
Published in the Wall Street Journal. Mr. Edwards, a Democrat and a former senator from North Carolina, is running for president.

The corporate domination of American life is most certainly to blame for the income inequalities that I have been writing about since the ascension of Ronald Reagan. But that is but one side of the issue. Corporations, it would seem, are above the law. Bringing them to justice for felony and capital crimes has been all but impossible. Corporations are shape shifters, invoking "corporate personhood" for the "freedom of speech" it gives them, but denying "personhood" in cases of mass murder and/or manslaughter.

Some twenty years on, the disaster in Bhopal in which some 8,000 people were killed is still in the news. There are two important and related developments. Last month, Dow Chemical literally purchased immunity from prosecution for its role in the Bhopal disaster even as the UK seeks to make corporations --not individuals --criminally responsible for deaths caused by a firm's gross negligence. The new law is entitled the "Corporate Manslaughter Statute."

Corporations often seem to be above the law and are. While corporations cite rights normally accorded individuals, they are rarely held to standards of equal responsibility. A single individual would have been imprisoned for an oil spill of Exxon Valdez magnitude but Exxon got off with a payoff. An individual responsible for the deaths of 8,000 at Bhopal might have gotten hard jail time for life or, in Texas, death at the end of a needle. Union Carbide, by contrast, got slapped on the corporate wrist for the deaths of 8,000 the night of December 3, 1984. There is, in fact, no definitive total of deaths.

THAT NIGHT, DECEMBER 3, 1984Shortly after midnight poison gas leaked from a factory in Bhopal, India, owned by Union Carbide Corporation. There was no warning, none of the plant's safety systems were working. In the city people were sleeping. They woke in darkness to the sound of screams with the gases burning their eyes, noses and mouths. They began retching and coughing up froth streaked with blood. Whole neighborhoods fled in panic, some were trampled, others convulsed and fell dead. People lost control of their bowels and bladders as they ran. Within hours thousands of dead bodies lay in the streets. ....

--International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal
The testimony of Mohammed Karim
I used to drive a truck to dispose of dirt and waste. My truck was also a special truck - I used to pick up unclaimed dead bodies from the mortuary, I was used to doing it. That night (3rd December 1984) I put in thousands of bodies that we dumped - in one grave we would put 5-6 bodies, and we burnt piles and piles with logs. Many bodies were burnt unidentified - Muslims were burnt and Hindus were buried.

"They (the govt.) said 'leave your wives and children in your houses and go on duty'. We used to be on duty till 12:00 at night and after that the military trucks used to come and dump the bodies in the Narmada river. This went on for three to four days. Even on the 16th (of December 1984) we had to come back again. They gave us R500 for this but then they took it back from our wages.

We would fit 120 bodies in one truck and this we would fill and empty five times a day. There were eight trucks on duty (so that is 4,800 bodies a day). It carried on for exactly the same intensity for three to four days, and after 12:00 am the military took over.

We took a bulldozer and dug pits to bury all the animals. Some people were picking up bodies and some animals. 50 - 60 drivers were all working that day (3rd December). We picked up the bodies with our own hands. Every time we picked one up it gave out gas. The bodies had all turned blue, and had froth oozing from their mouths.

In some houses everyone had died so there was no one to break the locks. In one case a 6 month old girl had survived and everybody else (mother, father and siblings) was dead. I broke the locks to that house.

At least 15 - 20,000 people died in those first few days. What they said in the papers was absolutely wrong. What could I have done? I was a government servant. What the government said was absolutely wrong but what could I do?

--How many died in Bhopal? A reply to the Houston Chronicle from Tim Edwards of the UK Campaign for Justice in Bhopal
Holding corporations responsible for crimes seems all but impossible.
In the United States, as in England, it is very difficult to hold either organizations or their officers responsible for gross negligence. For example, while many law students learn about the success civil tort plaintiffs had in suing Ford for failing to spend $13 per car to strengthen a gas tank known to be vulnerable to rear- end collisions, few learn that, at the same time, a prosecutor brought a case in criminal negligence against Ford in Indiana—and lost the jury trial.

--Anthony J. Sebok, The U.K.'s "Corporate Manslaughter" Statute, Findlaw
Dow Chemical, it appears, will escape all responsibility.

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1 comment:

Breanna said...

Good for people to know.