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Big Blues 

Published June 5, 2002 at 4:00 a.m.

Everybody has been so worried lately about local layoffs at IBM — and for good reason, we learned Tuesday — that no one has paid much attention to the fact that Big Blue is far from green. Promises made last week about job cuts turned out to be just as empty as IBM’s commitment to the environment.

Like every modern-day corporation, IBM has one singular purpose: to maximize profits. Sadly, the managerial history of the multinational corporation suggests it’s willing to ditch its morals for the capitalist cause. Consider, for example, that Thomas Watson, the much-touted founder of IBM, made millions of dollars for his company by clandestinely assisting the Nazis in counting and locating millions of Jews during the Holocaust.

“As for the moral dilemma, it simply did not exist for IBM,” Edwin Black writes in his highly acclaimed bestseller, IBM and the Holocaust. “Supplying the Nazis with the technology they needed was not even debated.”

In the here and now of Vermont, IBM is far and away the state’s top polluter. It is single-handedly responsible for releasing more than 200,000 pounds of toxins every year directly into the Winooski River, and eventually Lake Champlain. According to the EPA, that’s almost four times more than Wyeth Nutritionals, Vermont’s number-two polluter.

Air pollution is another issue. According to the Agency of Natural Resources, IBM’s Essex Junction facility fouls the air to the tune of 80-plus tons of contaminants every year.

Ironically, IBM is not only the state’s top polluter but also a nine-time winner of Governor Howard Dean’s environmental achievement awards. When asked how an offender on the scale of IBM could also be the state’s biggest environmental award-winner, Dean scoffs, declaring, “They’ve reduced their pollution… mostly through recycling.”

While often touted as a “clean” technology, the fabrication of semiconductors is actually one of the most toxic. According to the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, a nonprofit watchdog group that monitors the semiconductor industry, “the dark side of the high technology reveals polluted drinking water, waste discharges that harm fish and wildlife, and high rates of miscarriages, birth defects and cancer clusters among workers.”

In fact, employees at IBM’s Essex facility have recently joined in lawsuits against the corporation — hundreds are pending around the world — that trace toxins in the facility to health disorders in workers.

“We’ve known for more than three decades that the manufacturing of computer chips requires many toxic chemicals and that workers have been getting sick from exposure to those chemicals,” says Dr. Joseph LaDou, a University of California occupational physician who has been treating electronics workers since the 1970s.

IBM denies the accusations, deferring to the Semiconductor Industry Association for a response. But the foot-dragging by SIA in the face of mounting health and environmental problems leaves much to be desired. In April, for example, the SIA announced that it would “conduct a preliminary review to determine if it is possible to conduct” a study of health risks in the semiconductor industry.

“Cancer’s timetable won’t wait for the SIA’s delaying tactics,” responded Mandy Hawes, an attorney who represents hundreds of electronic workers and their families. “More and more workers are dying and many others are developing new cancers, and we need dramatic action to save lives now.”

In Vermont, however, the issue of worker safety at the IBM plant has been all but ignored by state officials. At a recent press conference, Dean declared that he would not ask the Vermont Department of Health to look into the matter because “it would be done through the courts.”

That doesn’t mean he’s hands off, though. “I’ve had 45 or 46 private meetings with IBM since I’ve been governor,” Dean said recently. “And IBM has gotten pretty much everything they’ve asked for.”

That attitude irks some of IBM’s employees.

“Governor Dean seems confused about who he represents,” says James Leas, an attorney and IBM employee currently on leave from his job. “He’s supposed to be representing the people of Vermont, not the corporations of Vermont.”

Leas has been leading the charge against IBM’s decision to slash its employee pension fund and retirement medical benefits. In 1999, then-CEO Lou Gerstner announced that IBM would be shelving its guaranteed traditional pension plan in favor of what’s known as a “cash balance” plan — a strategy that would save IBM millions but shortchange its employees. Thanks to quick organizing and help from Congressman Bernie Sanders, the IBM employees were able to shame IBM into reinstating some of the original pension and medical benefits.

IBM is also a major force at the Statehouse on a wide variety of issues, including the $150 million-plus controversial circumferential highway in Chittenden County. IBM asserts the road is needed to relieve congested commutes for its employees. But environmentalists see “the Circ” as a welcome mat for more sprawl and traffic.

For more than four decades, IBM has taken for granted its ability to get whatever it wants from the state of Vermont. Other than salaries, the company has offered little more in return than threats of job cuts and possible relocation.

“Big companies are no longer citizens of Vermont or even of America,” Dean recently declared after a private telephone meeting with IBM executives. “They are citizens of the world. Their decisions have nothing to do with Vermont.”

This week we learned that the hard way.

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Michael Colby


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