Progressives Seek to
'Uncharter' Unocal

Call it 'A Dangerous Scofflaw Corporation'

Special to the Progressive Populist

"We're letting the people of California in on a well-kept legal secret. The people mistakenly assume that we have to try to control these giant corporate repeat offenders one toxic spill at a time, one layoff at a time, one human rights violation at a time. But the law has always allowed the attorney general to go to court to simply dissolve a corporation for wrongdoing and sell its assets to others who will operate in the public interest."

With that charge Robert Benson, professor of law at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, announced at September 10 press conference in Los Angeles that 30 citizens' organizations, including the Alliance for Democracy, and individuals were filing a 127-page petition seeking action by the California Attorney General to revoke the charter of the Union Oil Company of California (Unocal).

"Baseball players and convicted individuals in California get only three strikes. Why should big corporations get endless strikes? " Benson, the lead attorney for the National Lawyers Guild's International Law Project for Human, Economic and Environmental Defense (HEED) noted.

Petitions were delivered to California Attorney General Dan Lungren's Sacramento office and, in simultaneous press conferences, to his representatives at his Los Angeles and San Francisco offices. Lungren, a former congressmen from California's 42nd district, is the current Republican Party nominee for the state's governorship.

Other petitioning organizations include the National Organization for Women (NOW), Rainforest Action Network, Global Exchange, Earth Island Institute, Free Burma Coalition, the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy, Action Resource Center, Amazon Watch, Asian/Pacific Gays and Friends, Burma Forum of Los Angeles, Democracy Unlimited of Humboldt County (California), No Petro-Dollars for SLORC, Project Maje, Project Underground, Surfers' Environmental Alliance, and the Transnational Resource and Action Center.

Individual petitioners include feminist attorney Gloria Allred, consumer advocate and attorney Harvey Rosenfield, Santa Monica City Councilmember Michael Feinstein, and Randall Hayes, president of Rainforest Action Network.

"This is the most substantial action by the American progressive-populist movement to curb corporate domination of the world since the Alliance started three years ago," Ronnie Dugger, founder and co-chair of the Alliance for Democracy, told The Progressive Populist.

"We all owe Bob Benson a great deal for just sitting down and doing the work and finding a way to pay for it (out of his own pro bono proceeds!) and then bringing us in," Dugger said. "He is a quiet and a modest person, so most of us didn't realize how important he is. He said to me at some point during all this, 'I came to the conclusion some time ago that things happen when someone does the work, so the point is to just do the work.' He has done it--it's been a great honor for me and for the Alliance to be some help to him on it--and as a result we are able to take a quantum step forward.

"We have spoken truth to power with competence and restraint and now--whether power, including the major media, responds or tries, once again, to give the truth the silent treatment--we will go straight to the people with this truth," Dugger added.

Outraged over Unocal's business ties with the anti-woman Taliban militia in Afghanistan and the military dictators of Burma, as well as over the corporation's record as a "repeat offender" of environmental, labor and deceptive practices laws and its "usurpation of political power," petitioners ask that the attorney general call on a court to revoke the company's charter, appoint a receiver, and wind up the corporation's affairs "in order to fully protect jobs, workers, stockholders, unions, communities, the environment, suppliers, customers, government entities, and the public interest." (See "Summary of Ten-count Case Against Unocal" at The Progressive Populist web site,

Benson said that the attorney general of New York recently asked a court to revoke the charters of two corporations that allegedly put out deceptive scientific research for the tobacco industry, and a judge in Alabama has asked his state courts to dissolve the tobacco companies themselves. In California, according to Benson, in 1976 conservative. Republican Attorney General Evelle Younger asked a court to dissolve a private water company for allegedly delivering impure water to its customers. "California attorneys general," he noted, "haven't often taken such action because they've become soft on corporate crime."

Unocal, the petition alleges on information and belief, was principally responsible for the notorious 1969 oil blowout in the Santa Barbara Channel, and since then has grievously polluted multiple sites from San Francisco to Los Angeles and has been identified as a potentially responsible party at 82 "Superfund" or similar toxic sites.

The California firm, which the petitioners charge is "a dangerous scofflaw corporation," has also committed hundreds of violations of the Occupational Safety and Health Act, treats U.S. workers unethically and unfairly, has usurped political power, has undermined U.S. foreign policy, and has engaged in a pattern of illegal deceptions of the courts, stockholders and the public, the petition alleges.

Additionally, the groups allege, Unocal has been complicit in "unspeakable" human rights violations perpetrated by foreign governments with which it has business ties in Afghanistan and Burma. The company's dealings with the Taliban militia in Afghanistan, known for its extremely cruel treatment of women, have particularly enraged women's groups.

Katherine Spillar, national coordinator for the Feminist Majority Foundation, one of the petitioning groups, denounced Unocal for its business dealings with the Taliban to build a gas pipeline which would bring the regime revenue and legitimacy. "If Unocal thinks it can do business with a regime that, in effect, denies women their right to exist as human beings, then we think Unocal's privilege to exist as a corporation must also be denied," commented Spillar.

The petition credits as its inspiration a 1993 pamphlet by Richard Grossman and Frank Adams, "Taking Care of Business: Citizenship and the Charter of Incorporation."

Grossman, co-founder of the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy, one of the petitioning groups, said that the courts have "always held that corporations are artificial entities, 'mere creatures of the state,' and must be summoned to answer to the people for usurpations of power and violations of the public trust such as those repeatedly committed by the Union Oil Company of California."

Summary of A Ten-Count Case Against Unocal

1) Ecocide; Environmental Devastation. Being in the oil and gas business, Unocal owed the public "a duty of care," which it has failed. "The company's environmental devastation extends from local to global and is serious enough to describe as ecocide ... [In California] Unocal has demonstrated a pattern and practice of polluting the locations where it operates ... Unocal has proved itself an incorrigible recidivist environmental polluter."

Illustrations are given concerning an 18-mile stretch of coastline between San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara County, concerning which Unocal has just agreed to pay $44 million, exclusive of the costs of clean-up. Concerning pollution from its refinery in Rodeo, California, the company paid $3 million in criminal and civil fines to the county in 1995 and in 1997 agreed to pay $80 million to settle private lawsuits for 18,000 individuals. Other offenses are recited.

2) Unfair and Unethical Treatment of Workers. Becoming a global company, Unocal has sold off its U.S. refineries and gasoline stations to finance expanding oil and gas production overseas, abandoning past and future generations of workers and moving into repressive countries "where the company could exploit cheap and even slave foreign labor. While this is an increasingly typical story as U.S. companies move offshore abetted by free trade agreements and cheered on by extremist economic ideologues, it is not an ethical story, nor one that the People of the State of California, represented by the Attorney General, must sit cross-legged listening to." This count also reviews the company's hundreds of violations of federal health and safety workplace rules.

3) Aiding Oppression of Women. "Unocal has initiated business dealings with a repressive rebel military force in Afghanistan infamous for gross violations of human rights." As lead partner, with $54.11% interest, in the Centgas consortium for the future construction of a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan and, potentially, India, Unocal opened negotiations with the Taliban, "a militia faction of Muslin extremists in a nation at civil war."

"At gunpoint, the Taliban have enforced the most oppressive regime of gender apartheid known to the world, banning girls from going to school, banning women from attending university, prohibiting women from holding jobs, requiring women to be accompanied at all times in public by a male member of their immediate families, requiring women to be covered from head to toe in a 'burqa' with only a small mesh facial opening ... requiring windows of homes with women to be darkened ... Women cannot be treated by male doctors, women are forced to seek care at a primitive women's hospital with limited supplies, only a few beds, and no running water. For violation of the Taliban's harsh edicts women have been beaten, shot at, publicly flogged, tortured, and even killed.
"As a collaborator with the Taliban, Unocal has become an integral participant in the ongoing violation of the human rights of Afghanistan's entire female population ... The Taliban stand to collect $50 million to $100 million a year in transit fees if the pipeline is built."

A company denial that it was dealing with the Taliban is said by the petitioners not to square with reputable press accounts. In July 1998 the company acknowledged that the CentGas consortium deals "with all factions in Afghanistan." In late August after the U.S. dropped missiles on an alleged terrorist camp in Afghanistan the company "suspended" all activities concerning the proposed pipeline and said it would not go forward on it until the U.S. recognizes a government in the country.

4) Aiding Oppression of Homosexuals. In Afghanistan, "Taliban policy is to put anyone convicted of homosexual sodomy to death by burying them alive under mud walls pushed over them by a bulldozer. Two homosexuals were recently executed in this fashion. Three others who were still alive 30 minutes after a wall was pushed over them were allowed to live, with broken bones. ... Doing business with the Taliban unavoidably supports their regime of torture and death for homosexuals, just as doing business with Nazi Germany supported the ovens of the Holocaust," the petition states.

5) Enslavement and Forced Labor. Unocal has formed a business enterprise with the illegal military dictatorship of Burma to build a natural gas pipeline across a civil war zone in the country. That dictatorship set aside election results that went 82% for its opposition in 1990. Unocal's interest in the pipeline consortium is 28.16%.

The military dictatorship (SLORC) has confiscated land, relocated villages, and destroyed rainforest and other habitat for the pipeline; and Unocal "has profited from the use of forced and slave labor" by the military dictatorship and "knew or should have known and could have reasonably foreseen that its military partner would use forced labor to clear the land for the pipeline route, build related infrastructure in the area, and provide security for the pipeline."

U.S. State Department reports on forced labor in Burma are quoted. Human Rights Watch/Asia estimates that since 1992 at least two million people have been forced to work without pay on roads, railways, and bridges across Burma. Unocal says there has never been forced labor on the pipeline itself and the company would not countenance it.

6) Forced Relocations of Burmese Villages and Villagers. "Unocal has knowingly profited from the large-scale forcible relocation of Burmese villages and villagers without compensation," the petition alleges.

7) Killings, Torture and Rape. "Unocal's military business partner [in Burma] has committed widespread killings, torture, and rapes. ...Unocal has to have known that it was dealing with a notorious outlaw regime condemned worldwide for heinous human rights violations."

U.S. State Department and U.N. Commission on Human Rights reports are quoted concerning, respectively, credible reports of soldiers "extrajudicial killings and rape"and "extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and enforced disappearances, torture, abuse of women and children by government agents." According to the petition, "Unocal knew or should have known that SLORC security for the pipeline would lead to human rights violations and death."

8) Complicity in Gradual Cultural Genocide of Tribal and Indigenous Peoples. In the case of the Lubicon Cree people of Canada, Unocal has operated the Slave Lake oil and gas field since 1981; Slave Lake lies in the Lubicon Cree's traditional lands. In the summer of 1994, despite U.N. attempts to protect the Lubicon Cree people from development impinging on their lands, Unocal built a $10 million sour gas plant, which smells like rotten eggs, a little more than a mile upwind from the boundary of the proposed reserve which the Lubicon Cree and the government of Canada had previously agreed upon.

"The Lubicon Cree believe their traditional economy has been deliberately destroyed by the governments of Canada and Alberta as part of a legal strategy. In this context, Unocal is complicit as a joint accomplishing a gradual cultural genocide."

Concerning principally the Karen and Mon tribes in Burma, "Unocal knew or should have known and could have reasonably foreseen that its military partner would intensify its civil war against the tribal peoples of the pipeline region."

9) Usurpation of Political Power. Unocal has "usurped" political power "that it cannot, by its corporate nature, exercise" and has aggressively undermined democratic processes at home and abroad. In Burma and Afghanistan it has taken sides "with brutal human rights abusers, giving them legitimacy, defending them publicly, working with them." In Burma, acting in hostile opposition to the democratically elected government, Unocal has worked "to subvert the Burmese people's right to self- determination."

Unocal "has decided to become a global economic and political force unto itself," "deploys diplomats as if it were the State Department itself," and "works to thwart U.S. foreign policy."

One of Unocal's business partners in Burma, wholly owned by the government, is accused of being "the main channel for laundering the revenues of heroin" exported from Burma under control of the Burmese army, and in Afghanistan, according to the U.S. State Department, the Taliban "claim to forbid drug use but they control the opium growing lands and collect a tax from opium farmers." Yet Unocal management sought strenuously to block its stockholders' consideration of its business partner's alleged laundering of drug money in Burma.

10) Deception of the Courts, Shareholders, and the Public. Unocal "has exhibited a pattern of deceiving the courts, its shareholders, and the public about its activities." In 1996 a federal district judge found that a Unocal paralegal, with either the tacit or overt approval of her superiors, altered data, withheld information, and gave false responses in verified court documents. Unocal, contrary to press reports, told its investors and the public that it was not doing business with any party in Afghanistan. Unocal is one of a number of oil companies alleged to have defrauded the public out of hundreds of millions of dollars by underpaying oil royalties due from leases on public lands.

Al Krebs is a contributing writer to The Progressive Populist and a member of the National Council of the Alliance for Democracy.

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