The Building Tradesman Newspaper

Friday, January 25, 2013

So, boycott Koch Bros. products? Not so fast…

By The Building Tradesman

(By Jon Geenen, International Vice President, United Steelworkers)

By now anyone who had not yet heard of the Koch brothers has been introduced to them. Every major newspaper and magazine has run an article about the brothers, who until recently lived largely under the radar while advancing a political vision via political action committees and think tanks funded by their fortunes.

In the advent of the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case, journalists and others have made a clear connection between the Koch brothers and their role and influence in the advancement of the agenda of the far political right. Indeed, it is important, in fact essential, that Americans know who is driving the agenda and what the agenda is about, although the Citizens United decision and federal law allow the Koch brothers and other wealthy funders of the far right to donate in secret.

The groups that generally operate in the middle and to the left of the center of the political spectrum who identify themselves as moderate, progressives, trade unionists and other like-minded people are outraged by this dirty little secret. It has led to a progressive uprising in some areas, with protests that are said to eclipse the anti-war protests of the 1960s. These groups have also launched various efforts to pressure the financiers and architects of this agenda into rethinking their positions.

Therein lies at least one problem.

A number of organizations are advocating a boycott of the products that come from companies owned by the Koch family. This is problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it could potentially hurt the wrong people.

The Koch brothers own Georgia Pacific. It is an American consumer goods company that makes everyday products like facial tissue, napkins, paper towels, paper cups and the like. Their plants are great examples of American advanced manufacturing. Incidentally, GP makes most of its products here in America. The company’s workforce is highly unionized. In fact, 80 percent of its mills are under contract with one or more labor unions.  It is not inaccurate to say that these are among the best-paid manufacturing jobs in America.

This presents a dilemma and a paradox. While the Koch brothers are credited with advocating an agenda and groups that are clearly hostile to labor and labor’s agenda, the brothers’ company in practice and in general has positive and productive collective bargaining relationships with its unions.

While some companies are running from investment in American jobs, The Koch brothers’ Georgia Pacific just reached agreements with its primary union in the paper industry to invest more than a half a billion dollars in capital to essentially create two state-of-the-art machines that conserve fiber and energy at two separate union mills.

While certainly there are disagreements from time to time on what the right pension program is, or right wage increases and incentives, or the right formula for health care cost sharing, ultimately we end up with negotiated solutions.

So the problem for the advocates of a boycott against Koch is that it can only marginally hurt Koch, and the workers who are the epitome of what advanced manufacturing jobs in the United States ought to look like, would be the first casualties of a boycott. Of course, this will eventually drive a wedge between groups that are otherwise in political alignment.

If consumers pick alternate products (because people will still use toilet paper), in many cases, the substitute will be from a company with a track record that is much less friendly to the values of the workers who would, as a result of the boycott, become the collateral damage. The Koch brothers’ lifestyle will not dramatically change; there are no shareholders that will become concerned; the company is privately owned. The stock won’t plummet either – there is none.

To be sure, I personally have grave concerns about the agenda and influence being wielded by private wealth into our political system. Who doesn’t? I too agree that the Koch brothers are an ideal example of a very broken system.  They undoubtedly know that many see them as pariahs, and undoubtedly they don’t care – no more than I care if someone attaches a label to me for my political views.

So the question is: Can you hurt the Koch brothers through this kind of boycott? Or are you inadvertently becoming the bully that is kicking the Koch dog. There is no doubt that the events in my home state of Wisconsin and elsewhere have become an ignition point for action, and thank God that they have.

Arguably we have been rescued from the social hospice overseeing our demise. It is fair to keep the Koch brothers at the center of the debate. There have been fewer clear examples in our lifetime of the corruption of our system. If “Citizens United” gave corporations First Amendment rights, then too it gives them First Amendment responsibility and accountability. It is fair to find a way to make the Koch brothers responsible for promoting an agenda that ultimately hurts workers, but we should not make union workers collateral damage in this contest with Koch.