In one of the most famous conservative quotes in American history, President Calvin Coolidge once told a convention of newspaper editors, "The chief business of the American people is business." This is not only true, but also a rightful source of pride for our country, as our past and present greatness is inextricably linked to the resourcefulness and ingenuity of our business community.
Unfortunately, there are those corporations that have marred the reputation of American free enterprise in the eyes of the world — and not merely the infamous leviathans like Walmart, Goldman Sachs, and Chick-fil-A. Indeed, no American Business Hall of Shame would be complete without such entries as...
Belying the benign image presented by its lithe and cheery mascot, Chiquita Brands International has a particularly dark history. As if its notoriously abysmal labor rights record wasn't enough, the company pleaded guilty in 2007 to paying various Colombian paramilitary groups to protect its plantations and personnel. The $25 million fine was nothing compared to the suffering that resulted from the havoc that these groups caused during the ongoing conflict in that country, leading many of them to be branded as terrorist organizations.
The Dole Food Company joins this list with one of the sketchiest origin stories: its founder, James Dole, was the cousin of Sanford B. Dole, who helped to overthrow the legitimate government of Hawaii to promote the interests of his pineapple company, and eventually helped convince the United States to annex the small island nation.
More than a century later, Dole still hasn't learned much about respecting the rights of the peoples of the nations whose resources line their pockets. Like many other fruit companies, Dole used a pesticide known as DBCP (dibromochloroproprane) until 1979, which is alleged to have caused sterility in men, miscarriages, birth defects, cancer and other medical issues for its workers.
If you thought the infamous BP oil spill would convince oil companies to play it straight with the American people, guess again. It was revealed that Chevron, Phillips 66 and BP Amoco used an Utah state fund to clean up the damage caused by leaking fuel storage tanks, after claiming they weren't insured — an assertion that has since been proven false. Settlements of $2 million and $1.8 million have been reached with Chevron and Phillips 66 respectively, while the lawsuit against BP Amoco is still pending.
After reading about fruit companies that may have endangered their workers' health, one could almost praise McDonald's for displaying (most likely unintentional) candor toward its employees. To quote an embarrassing passage from the controversial employee resources website that the Golden Arches set up last month (which also offered hilariously out-of-touch advice on matters like tipping pool boys):
"Fast foods are quick, reasonably priced, and readily available alternatives to home cooking. While convenient and economical for a busy lifestyle, fast foods are typically high in calories, fat, saturated fat, sugar, and salt and may put people at risk for becoming overweight."
In almost the exact opposite of the McDonald's faux pas, Dannon has been under fire for exaggerating the health benefits of its yogurt and other dairy products. According to the settlement it reached with the Federal Trade Commission, Dannon "is prohibited from claiming that any yogurt, dairy drink, or probiotic food or drink reduces the likelihood of getting a cold or the flu," "may not claim that Activia yogurt will relieve temporary irregularity or help with slow intestinal transit time, unless the claim is not misleading and the ad conveys that three servings of Activia yogurt must be eaten each day to obtain these benefits," and "may not claim that any other yogurt, dairy drink, or probiotic food or drink will relieve temporary irregularity or help with slow intestinal transit time."
While it's easy to dismiss him as a cartoonish villain today, Alabama Governor George C. Wallace was one of the most formidable political figures in America during the 1960s and early 1970s. After rising to prominence as an outspoken segregationist who defied the Kennedy administration's desegregation efforts, he shifted gears and ran for president as a third-party candidate in 1968 on a platform that contemporary observers (like these British reporters) agreed used right-wing populist rhetoric as a disguise for a racist and anti-intellectual agenda.
According to those same sources, iconic Kentucky Fried Chicken founder Colonel Harland Sanders was "among the names we heard mentioned again and again as major contributors" to Wallace's campaign, even being "suspected by dyspeptic reporters of having supplied the interminable fried chicken on Wallace campaign planes." Sanders was reportedly a finalist for the vice presidential slot on Wallace's ticket, which ultimately won 13.5% of the popular vote and the electoral votes of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, North Carolina and Arkansas.
While Walt Disney's political views remain a source of debate to this day, there is little dispute that his company is responsible for some of America's most irresponsibly racist movies. These scandals range from whitewashing the appearances of protagonists in films like The Princess and the Frog and Aladdin to overtly playing on racial stereotypes in movies like Song of the South, The Little Mermaid and Dumbo. That doesn't even begin to touch the unrealistic body images and conservative gender roles promoted by Disney princesses, which have been criticized by feminist scholars for decades.
Even before Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany, automobile entrepreneur Henry Ford was one of America's most notorious anti-Semites, using his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent to spread conspiracy theories about Jews. After being publicly humiliated for his prejudiced views, he toned down his rhetoric by the 1930s and 1940s, when Hitler rose to power. Nevertheless, he was widely suspected of providing secret support for the Third Reich, as reflected by his being awarded the Grand Service Cross of the Supreme Order of the German Eagle by Hitler himself in 1938.
Thanks to the policies of Richard Nixon's Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz, corn-based products are present in every sphere of American life, including the high-fructose corn syrup that appears in so many of our foods, the drywall that builds our houses, the chemicals in Febreeze and sanitary napkins. The main beneficiary of this has been Monsanto, which produces the seeds for the corn grown on nearly 80% of American farmland acreage (as well as 93% of American soybean seeds). They even own Roundup, the pesticide on which farmers depend to protect their crops.
Is it a problem that one company, Diebold, produces as many as one-fourth of the voting machines used in this country? One could have argued against that proposition until 2011, when the Vulnerability Assessment Team at Argonne National Laboratory found that the machines were ridiculously vulnerable to being corrupted. As Salon reported, Diebold machines "can be hacked with just $10.50 in parts and an eighth grade science education." Indeed, questions about the security of Diebold's machines have arisen as early as 2003, when they were the focus of a widely-circulated op-ed by New York Times columnist Paul Krugman.
Although they've expressed their displeasure at the situation, the fact remains that America's leading tech companies — including Google, Twitter, Microsoft, and Facebook — have all provided the National Security Agency (NSA) with direct access to their servers to help it spy on American citizens. The scope of that access remains a subject of speculation, as NSA refuses to reveal the extent of their activity on these servers.
As Edwin Black chronicled in his book IBM and the Holocaust: The Strategic Alliance Between Nazi Germany and America's Most Powerful Corporation, IBM provided the Third Reich with the technology necessary to identify and catalogue the Jews who would ultimately be rounded up and systematically murdered during the Holocaust. Black's website sums it up best: "IBM technology was used to organize nearly everything in Germany and then Nazi Europe, from the identification of the Jews in censuses, registrations, and ancestral tracing programs to the running of railroads and organizing of concentration camp slave labor."
As if the squalid living conditions imposed on most of its Liberian workers weren't heinous enough, the Firestone tire company continues to be one of the most appalling offenders of child exploitation. In the words of Common Dreams, "Children carry heavy loads, come into close contact with toxic pesticides and often work for 12 hours a day." Although a 2011 court decision exonerated the company of claims made against them by 23 child laborers, it found that American law allows corporations to be held responsible for human rights violations committed in other countries. While their 2000 recall of defective tires didn't destroy them, hopefully their deplorable use of child labor will eventually be used to bring down Firestone.
In order to get around FDA regulations while still being able to advertise their products as scientifically sound, pharmaceutical companies regularly use a practice known in the industry as "seeding trials." As the New York Times explains, "a pharmaceutical company will identify several hundred doctors and invite them to take part in a research study. Often the doctors are paid for each subject they recruit. As the trial proceeds, the doctors gradually get to know the drug, making them more likely to prescribe it later."
While these can be scientifically valid, they are often marred by poor oversight and monitored by inexperienced and/or incompetent investigators. Not surprisingly, the seeding trials for Pfizer's seizure drug Neurontin caused 11 patient deaths and 73 "serious adverse events," while during the tests for Merck's pain reliever Vioxx, three subjects died and five more experienced heart attacks.
With the decadent excesses of America's 1% drawing more and more attention these days, special notice should be given to Dennis Kozlowski, the former CEO of Tyco who defrauded his company out of more than $100 million to subsidize his lavish lifestyle. As this Cracked article details, this included a $2 million birthday party for his wife, "orgy-themed team building events with ice sculptures of the Statue of David pissing vodka," $30 million to purchase and decorate his New York apartment, another $30 million to purchase a second home in Boca Raton, $41 million for a pair of yachts, and various other egregious expenditures that were ultimately picked up by Tyco shareholders. It wasn't until that he attempted to skip on taxes for $13 million of art acquisitions that Kozlowski was caught and Tyco spared his fiscal pillaging.