Book Review: Fear At Work - Job Blackmail, Labor, and the Environment

Fear At Work: Job Blackmail, Labor, and the Environment, by Richard Kazis and Richard L. Grossman; the Pilgrim Press, NY. Reviewed by Edward Abbey – Earth First! Journal, Beltane (May 1) 1988

This is a good book, concisely written, thoroughly documented, and to my knowledge the first and only book to deal with the subject of corporate blackmail as wielded against working people, industrial communities, and the American environmental movement.

The technique is old, simple, firmly established: whenever some branch of our industrial empire is faced with labor demands for safe and healthy working conditions, or with proposed regulations that would restrict an industry’s traditional freedom to pollute the air, the water, the land, then the managers of that particular industry invariably begin making threats, sometimes subtle, sometimes plain and crude, against the livelihoods of their employees and against the welfare of the local community.

Kazis and Grossman supply many convincing examples. “In January, 1971, in one of his first acts as administrator of the new Environmental Protection Agency, William Ruckelshaus ordered the Union Carbide Company to comply with air pollution cleanup deadlines at its Marietta, Ohio, metals plant. The company announced that it could reduce the plant’s sulfur dioxide and particulate emissions only by shutting down two boilers and laying off over 600 workers.

This particular blackmail attempt turned out to be a bluff. As Kazis and Grossman report, Union Carbide backed down from its layoff threats when local citizens and the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (OCAW) Union offered strong resistance; instead of shutting down two boilers and laying off 600 workers the plant switched to low sulfur coal, complying with pollution ­control deadlines, and did not have to furlough anybody.

Another example of industrial blackmail was the supersonic transport plane, the once-famous SST. Aerospace companies, their indentured politicians—such as Henry Jackson, the Senator from Boeing—and Nixon administration officials united in promoting the project, claiming that it could “create” 200,000 new jobs and save the American aviation industry. Nevertheless the scheme was defeated by a coalition of scientists, engineers, and environmentalists. The result? The money which would have been invested in the SST was invested instead in the production of the newer, more fuel-efficient planes, like the 747 jumbo jet, which have become the mainstay of Boeing’s commercial fleet. Meanwhile the taxpayers of England and France have lost billions on the jointly-financed Concorde flying machine.

Corporate interests are seldom very subtle when they make their pitch for industrial growth at the expense of environmental safety. In testimony before the California State Energy Commission in 1979, David Packard, chairman of the Hewlitt-Packard Company, tried twist arms with the following remark:

If the Diablo Canyon [nuclear power plant] is not brought on stream this year, our company will clearly have to re-evaluate its decision to build a major facility in Roseville…

At the same meeting, Robert Wilson, resident of Memorex Corporation, provided the “global perspective”:

If the United States continues in its infinite wisdom to strangle itself on energy problems, we’ll have to go elsewhere. We need to look not only between states, but between countries.

In most cases corporate blackmail is not a bluff. Industrial interests not only play the states against one another, forcing them to compete in the effort to attract industry and thus maintain employment, but play the international game as well. The flight of American capital to overseas investments, where labor is cheap and environmental regulations weak or nil, has been going on for many years and is one of the primary causes of the prolonged economic slump in this country.

Such blackmail is effective because “employers control the jobs. Political leaders, workers, and the public do not. For this reason both the public and its elected officials are vulnerable.” Whether corporations actually do move or not, their threat to do so is always credible. In addition the corporate sector has other advantages over the public—not only economic power but control of information, and the ability, through ownership of the media, to set the limits of public debate on national needs and priorities.

Kazis and Grossman demonstrate that this process of corporate domination of our economy, politics and society has been going on for a long time—for at least a century—as industrialists used their power over jobs to discipline the workforce, to oppose environmental regulations, to promote the mythology of never-ending material growth, and to buy into and thus effectively control our political institutions. As Will Rogers once said, “We Americans have the best politicians that money can buy.”

But although the corporate power is awesome, it is not, our authors assure us, all-powerful learning from our history, we see that workers, by organizing themselves, have managed to win much of the struggle for workplace rights—shorter hours, higher wages, healthier working conditions. The environmental movement, too, during recent decades, has succeeded in placing some limits on the power of an undemocratic, centrally-managed industrialism. Grossman and Kazis show that the interests of these two movements are complementary rather than in conflict, that an awareness of mutual concerns is growing, and that if labor unions and environmental organizations begin, in the future, to support one another, to work together, then there is a good chance that our social economy can be placed under majority control, with industry forced to serve the welfare of American citizens as a whole rather than the interests of the corporate-governmental bureaucracy. What they propose, in short, is an extension of the democratic process to include the employer-employee relation-ship. When that happens it should possible, they argue, to provide useful work for all and a clean, healthy, spacious human and natural environment.

A tall order. But the alternative—our drift toward the “re-industrialized” technocratic state—is much too ugly for free men and women to accept without a fight. We are faced once again with the choice that has become as old as civilization: resistance or another form of slavery.