Twenty-seven years in a Detroit automotive plant. I've been gone for five years and yet, sometimes, I can still smell a hint of machine oils in my old work boots and jeans. If I close my eyes I can imagine the hammer and erratic boom! of 300-pound presses starting up on Monday mornings.
My co-workers at the plant were an array of assemblers and machine operators—solid, hard-working souls struggling to create a better life for themselves [End Page 108] and their families. There were others at work: the odd, opportunist souls who made our jobs miserable. They were characters who manipulated their way through closed doors, charming as snake oil salesmen, and they didn't just steal from work—they pimped it, sniffed out kickbacks, and trampled others around them.
These "higher ups"—the managers, superintendents, engineers, and accountants— are often a reckless and powerful layer of professionals who stumble and rob their way through the daily operations of corporate America.
Unbridled corporate criminal behavior is the focus of this collection of articles by Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman in On The Rampage: Corporate Predators and The Destruction of Democracy. Through their stories they show us a world of decreasing government regulations and increasing criminal activity. And they show us that the government agencies in charge of policing these corporate criminals, like the Justice Department or the Food and Drug Administration, simply turn their heads.
A case in point: in 2001, the Sara Lee Corporation pled guilty to two misdemeanor counts in the deaths of 21 consumers who ate Listeriosis-tainted Ball Park Franks meat products. The story starts when Bil Mar Foods, a Michigan unit of Sara Lee, closed its plant on July 4, 1998 to replace a refrigeration unit in its hot processing plant. When the plant resumed production, workers discovered a germ, a "cold-loving bacteria" in a number of products. Allegedly, the source of the bacteria was the ceiling where the unit had been replaced, directly above a conveyer belt transporting hot dogs and deli meats. Despite the discovery, production continued and Sara Lee took no action.
Four months later, consumers began dying. When the Center for Disease Control was notified, it traced the bacteria, and the hot dogs and meats were recalled. An official with the Center for Science in the Public Interest asserted that Sara Lee had found the problem and then "chose to ignore it." When the case went to court, the Attorney General's office chose to not press for a felony conviction and, in a highly unusual move, the prosecutor and a "guilty" Sara Lee issued a joint press release on the misdemeanors agreement. Sara Lee's fine was $200,000.
Mokhiber and Weissman offer several of these stories and then detail how corporations have taken great pains to reshape themselves in the public eye. With crime and violence, big government, and the decline of moral values as the focus of much of today's media attention, many corporations—trying to avoid that attention—have learned to portray themselves as human, as a part of a community of individuals and families. This new face, a creation of corporate public relations dollars and powerful lobbyists, has permitted businesses to minimize unfavorable media attention. [End Page 109]
Exposing the construction of this ideal of a "neighborly" corporation makes On The Rampage an important tool for labor educators who are interested in training activists about the relationship between corporations, crime, and government.
In the 1970s, corporations found themselves challenged by protests, public interest groups, and policy changes that drove up costs, reduced profits, and "infring[ed] on their ability to act as they pleased." Their response, write Mokhiber and Weissman, was to "launch a 100-year PR campaign to "create the corporate soul." Businesses began funding right-wing think tanks, like the Heritage Foundation, who in turn began churning out "endless streams of studies, statements and news releases supporting the corporate line."
Corporations began contributing to union...