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Capitalists Capitalize on Charlottesville

By Tess Ipolito, Global Justice Ecology Project

Following the tragedy in Charlottesville, several American CEOs left Trump’s manufacturing and Strategic & Policy councils, using these tragic events to project their companies as moral beacons through statements condemning racial and social injustice. This, despite their own records of profit-motivated injustices especially targeting poor and POC communities both in the US and globally.

Merck CEO, Ken Frazier was the first member of the council to step down on Monday morning. His statement: “America’s leaders must honor our fundamental values by clearly rejecting expressions of hatred, bigotry, and group supremacy, which run counter to the American ideal that all people are created equal. As CEO of Merck, and as a matter of personal conscience, I feel a responsibility to take a stand against intolerance and extremism.” [1]

In reality, Frazier’s company, Merck capitalizes on people diagnosed with cancer.  Their cancer immunotherapy treatment, Keytruda, can cost over $100,000 per treatment course, making it vastly out of reach for many low-income cancer patients. In fact, this drug alone generated $881 million in sales just in the second quarter of 2017. [2] Frazier likes to like brag that Merck is not the worst drug company but the company also refuses to cap future price raises on their pharmaceutical products. [3] All people created equal?  Not at Merck.

On Wednesday morning, 3M CEO, Inge Thulin stepped down stating “I joined the Manufacturing Jobs Initiative in January … in order to make the United States stronger, healthier and more prosperous for all people.” [1]

Healthier? In 2011, 3M boasted not one, but two of the top polluting facilities in the country. [4] One of those is located in a community in Buffalo, NY where the poverty rate is 30.1%, more than twice the corresponding national rate of 14.9%. [5]. In 2010, the state of Minnesota sued 3M over decades of contamination within the state’s water systems, specifically relating to its disposal of PFCs. According to the Minnesota Department of Health, studies have shown a positive correlation between these chemicals and prostate cancer, cerebrovascular disease and diabetes in 3M employees. [6] In Alabama, the sixth poorest state in the nation, 3M is accused of improperly disposing of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctyl sulfonate (PFOS), which are now leaking into the Tennessee River [7], a source of drinking water for thousands of individuals who are are predominantly people of color. [8] “stronger, healthier and more prosperous for all people”?  Questionable.

Alex Gorsky of Johnson & Johnson waited until Wednesday to leave Trump’s Strategic and Policy forum.  His statement read, “The President’s most recent statements equating those who are motivated by race-based hate with those who stand up against hatred is unacceptable and has changed our decision to participate in the White House Manufacturing Advisory Council.”

Speaking of Nazis and race based hate, J&J teamed up with another pharmaceutical giant, Bayer for the manufacture of the blood-thinning drug Xarelto (which incidentally is subject to a class action lawsuit due to its deadly side effects). [9]  For a company supposedly so concerned with racism, Bayer is a strange bedfellow.  In 1925, Bayer co-founded the IG Farben Trust. During World War II, the Nazi concentration camp Auschwitz was a subsidiary of IG Farben.

Tribunals were held for the heads of IG Farben, including Bayer executives, in 1946. Thirteen of the 24 men on trial were convicted of war crimes and served time due to their involvement in fueling Hitler’s war machine. IG Farben was forced to split up, and Bayer became its own corporation again. [10]

But J&J are no saints on their own either. Over the years they have knowingly put out talcum powder that causes cancer [11], and sold baby shampoos and soaps that contained numerous toxic ingredients. [12] J&J also had to recall a hysterectomy device that aided in the spread of cancer among patients [13].

GE CEO Jeff Immelt stepped down stating “GE has no tolerance for hate, bigotry, racism, and the white supremacist extremism that the country witnessed in Charlottesville last weekend.”

Yet his company also has a long history with human rights violations. First, there is the massive, almost unprecedented pollution of the Hudson River. “Between 1947 and 1977, GE dumped an estimated 1.3 million pounds of PCBs into the river. These PCBs are now found in sediment, water and wildlife throughout the river ecosystem as far south as the New York Harbor. They are also found in people. [14] GE has, and continues to be one of America’s largest polluters to air and water.

Lesser known, are GE’s human experiments conducted in mid 1900s, testing radiation on human beings in hospitals and on at least one occasion releasing a large radiation cloud into the air into California, just to see how fair it could travel. [15]

These CEOs are denouncing social and racial injustice while their companies commit atrocities against poor and POC communities, maintaining the Capitalist tradition of environmental destruction and racism.

But Charlottesville and Trump gave them a fantastic opportunity to pretend that they are not Capitalist equivocators, and that they do not put profits over people and the earth.  A strategic move to use a tragedy to promote their brand and help the public forget who they really are and what they really do.

Let us not forget the principles these companies really stand for.

[1] Gould, L. R. (2017, August 16). Here are all the members who left Trump’s now-disbanded manufacturing council after Charlottesville. Retrieved August 17, 2017, from http://www.businessinsider.com/ceos-and-business-leaders-who-left-trump-manufacturing-council-2017-8

[2] Szabo, L. (2017, March 15). As Drug Costs Soar, People Delay Or Skip Cancer Treatments. Retrieved August 17, 2017, from http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/03/15/520110742/as-drug-costs-soar-people-delay-or-skip-cancer-treatments

[3] Ramsey, L. (2017, August 14). Trump just put Merck’s CEO on blast over drug prices – here’s what the company’s track record actually looks like. Retrieved August 17, 2017, from http://www.businessinsider.com/donald-trump-attacks-merck-ceo-ken-frazier-on-drug-prices-after-charlottesville-protest-2017-8

[4] (n.d.). Retrieved August 17, 2017, from http://scorecard.goodguIde.com/Inde x.tcl

[5] Thomas, G. S. (2014, January 2). Buffalo’s poverty rate tops 30 percent, making it America’s third-poorest city. Retrieved August 17, 2017, from https://www.bizjournals.com/buffalo/news/2014/01/02/buffalos-poverty-rate-tops-30.html

[6] Kelleher, J. B. (2010, December 30). Minnesota sues 3M over pollution claims. Retrieved August 17, 2017, from http://www.reuters.com/article/us-3m-idUSTRE6BT31L20101230

[7] Dpillion@al.com, D. P. (2017, July 12). 3M water pollution case gets 2019 trial date. Retrieved August 17, 2017, from http://www.al.com/news/Index.ssf/2017/ 07/north_alabama_water_pollution.html

[8] Avollers@al.com, A. C. (2017, July 03). Alabama is 6th poorest state in nation; poverty rate at 40 percent in some counties. Retrieved August 17, 2017, from http://www.al.com/news/index.ssf/2017/07/alabama_is_6th_poorest_state_i.html

[9] Feeley, J., & Fisk, M. C. (2017, April 24). J&J, Bayer Accused of Hiding Blood-Thinning Drug’s Flaws. Retrieved August 18, 2017, from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-04-24/j-j-bayer-accused-of-hiding-blockbuster-blood-thinner-s-dangers

[10] Jeffreys, D. (2008). Hell’s Cartel: IG Farben and the making of Hitler’s War Machine, pg. 37, 328.

[11] Malkan, S. (2016). Johnson & Johnson Is Just the Tip of the Toxic Iceberg. Time . Retrieved August 18, 2017, from http://time.com/4239561/johnson-and-johnson-toxic-ingredients/

[12] Hensley, S. (2012). Johnson & Johnson Pledges To Purge Controversial Chemicals. NPR. Retrieved August 18, 2017, from http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2012/08/15/158832173/johnson-johnson-pledges-to-purge-controversial-chemicals

[13] Olson, S. (2014, August 03). Johnson & Johnson Pulls Hysterectomy Device For Fear That It Might Spread Cancer. Retrieved August 18, 2017, from http://www.medicaldaily.com/johnson-johnson-pulls-hysterectomy-device-fear-it-might-spread-cancer-295924

[14] Ink, S. (n.d.). Hudson River PCBs. Retrieved August 18, 2017, from https://www.riverkeeper.org/campaigns/stop-polluters/pcbs/

[15] GE: Decades of Misdeeds and Wrongdoing. (n.d.). Retrieved August 18, 2017, from http://www.multinationalmonitor.org/mm2001/01july-august/julyaug01corp4.html