Koch Bust

Part Three of Multi-part series | go to part one >> / part two >> or go to long read >>

Labor Tamers

From the time Charles Koch took control of the company his father built, he declared war on the working class. The most profitable asset in Koch Industries’ early years was the Pine Bend refinery, whose massive profitability was made possible by several extraneous factors including its geographical location, government policy on the importation of Canadian crude, loopholes in the Clean Air Act and government subsidies. It also had the benefit of being run by a highly-skilled, unionized workforce that was operating the plant before Koch acquired it in full.

The local chapter of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union, OCAW 6-662, had negotiated the framework for the conditions of their employment at the Pine Bend refinery between the 50’s and 60’s. The OCAW was a powerful union in a heavily unionized state, buttressed by interlocking loyalty oaths with other big unions like the Teamsters. But, the livelihoods of working class families and backbone of the local economy were not part of Charles Koch’s plans to streamline his business and within months of acquisition, he hired Bernard Paulson to take the union down.

Paulson had been managing Costal Oil & Gas down in Corpus Christi, Texas when Koch brought him on board to Minnesota specifically for his expertise in dealing with organize labor. Paulson started at Pine Bend in 1971 and only months later, in the early Spring of ‘72, he laid out his first trap. He scheduled OCAW local president, Joseph Hammerschimdt, to work on Easter Sunday knowing full well the irascible leader of the proud chapter would refuse. Paulson fired Hammerschmidt on the spot declaring war on the union.

The OCAW local’s contract was set to expire in the Fall of 1972 and when negotiations started, it was Hammerschmdit himself, in his capacity of chapter president, who was sitting across Paulson when the latter presented him with the new work rules rewritten by Koch Industries. Take it or leave it, Paulson informed the outraged OCAW representatives. In January, 1973, the men walked off the job and went on strike.

Pine Bend refinery in Rosemount, MN

Paulson had already gone over the strategy with his boss and immediately put a non-union “skeleton crew” to work in the posts vacated by the OCAW workforce. He put a cot in his office, stockpiled food and ordered the cafeteria remain open 24 hours. Koch’s union-buster was hunkering down for the long haul, but the bad omens didn’t wait to make their appearance. On the very first night of the strike, a large furnace that superheated oil exploded after leaks failed to be detected over the previous several hours.

Two months later, a saboteur pushed the throttle on a train diesel engine parked near the refinery, which had tracks running through the middle of it. Tragedy was averted by the derailing mechanism and the engine flipped over before crashing into the very large and very flammable refinery stacks and gasoline tanks. Incredibly, no one was killed in either incident.

As the strike dragged on, Paulson was able to leverage Koch Industries’ extensive contract work needs to induce the Teamsters to break the picket line. Teamster drivers accepted to carry out Koch’s deliveries in the midst of the strike, severely weakening the OCAW’s position.

After nine months, the strike ended with the union accepting a far less favorable deal than the one they once had. Charles Koch emerged victorious and imposed new work rules like mandatory overtime and a laughable grievance process that settled any successful claims by allotting overtime so workers could “earn” back the money they were owed. In addition, skill-based assignments were eliminated altogether; foreshadowing a developing trend in American workplaces that demanded wage laborers carry out tasks they were not necessarily trained to do.

A Future for Nobody

Koch’s contempt for workers would become a feature of their management style and as Charles Koch made inroads into the legal system to further erode workers’ rights, the company’s ability to impose onerous working conditions on its many factory floors became that much easier.

The 2003 acquisition of Farmland’s fertilizer plants revealed as much and crystallized the reality that had by then fully manifested as a result of the American oligarchy’s efforts to return to the days of robber barons and corporate monopolies.

Farmland Industries was a hugely successful co-op owned by thousands of farm families, which had thrived for three quarters of a century. They all shared in the profits and voted on the decisions that affected the business. Koch president, Dean Watson, derided the cooperative as “socialism” during the acquisition process. The bastion of modern agriculture had suffered a reversal of fortune during the natural gas shortage in the 90’s, forcing them to auction off their immensely profitable fertilizer plants.

Koch was already a large producer of a key component in industrial fertilizer, nitrogen. The purchase of Farmland’s network of fertilizer plants, which ran all along the corn belt between Iowa and Nebraska, was completed for the relatively paltry sum of $290 million dollars and put Koch at the center of America’s agricultural universe. The co-op model was summarily dismissed as Koch executives took over Farmland headquarters and asserted control over yet another vital aspect of American life.

Not content with this, Koch also flexed their political muscle to deregulate the energy markets themselves, putting them in a position to profit from virtually every link in the chain of basic necessities and holding it hostage to market forces.

Opening the Gates of Hell

Joseph Coors, of the brewing family fortune, wrote a letter to his senator, Republican Gordon Allot, after reading the Powell memo with a seemingly unlimited offer to fund “conservative causes”. Allot’s press aide was a man by the name of Paul Weyrich who immediately took advantage of the wealthy man’s generosity and founded The Heritage Foundation with Edwin Feulner Jr., a graduate of Wharton.

Both men had been intent on creating a policy-crafting organization that wouldn’t shy away from pushing legislation directly, as most think tanks did. Originally named Analysis and Research Association, the political influence operation grew to become the only outside organization allowed to caucus with members of Congress. The same year that The Heritage Foundation opened its doors in 1973, Weyrich created the American Legislative Exchange Council or ALEC, with the purpose of mounting legislative battles at the state level around the country. Most of ALEC’s funding came from Richard Mellon Scaife’s foundation, but would eventually count on much Koch money, too.

Paul Weyrich a conservative think tank chairman testifies before the Senate Armed Serviced Committee on Capitol Hill during the confirmation hearing of Defense Secretary-designate John Tower in Washington. Weyrich, who coined the phrase “moral majority” and helped turn social conservatives into a powerful force in the Republican Party, died Thursday, Dec. 18, 2008. He was 66. (AP Photo, File)

Koch became a key supporter of ALEC’s national push to deregulate the energy markets, putting his men on the task forces put together by the organization. ALEC’s “model bills” were introduced to many states with barely any modifications and greatly helped Koch Industries partake of the massive fraud that the new energy markets afforded companies like theirs. Pushing the changes along with Koch on ALEC’s task forces were representatives of Enron, which ended up taking the brunt of the press coverage when the chickens came home to roost.

Koch had been trading in the commodities market for years prior. In 1983, when NYMEX introduced oil futures contracts, Koch was well-positioned to take advantage of the seismic change this represented for the way oil was traded on the open market. Ron Howell, the man who years later carried out the fake audit of the Osage leases on Koch’s behalf, was then the head of the company’s oil trading division.

He would retire just two years later in 1985, but not before observing how things were about change. “It was the first time that there was a […] visible market signal for the price of oil”, he told Kochland author, Christopher Leonard. Until then, the price of oil was set over the phone between traders themselves; privately and far away from anyone not intimately involved in the industry. These were also real trades, in that the seller had to deliver the oil to the buyer. Koch had the advantage over independent traders because they already owned the oil and could execute delivery themselves. Oil contract futures, on the other hand, opened the door to the entire financial sector.

The NYMEX price of oil wasn’t the real price of oil. It was a bet on what the price of oil would be at some point in the future and Koch had built an intelligence-gathering operation on its own private trading floor that rivaled anything found in Langley, Virginia. Koch used data gleaned from every other division in their company; they utilized any data they could pry from competitors; they scoured news stories for information and even had a stable of the best meteorologists in the business to get a jump on weather patterns to predict consumption trends.

Charles Koch would bring all of it under one roof as Koch Supply & Trading after George W. Bush broke up the natural gas companies in 2001, spurring the fossil fuel giant to assume the management of the nation’s natural gas infrastructure. The potential profits promised by the new structure separating gas sellers from distributors and consumers were made even more attractive by the invention of yet another financial instrument: derivatives.

Unlike oil futures, which – while deferred – still required delivery of the asset, derivatives were pure bets based on the underlying value of the asset but without actual delivery of the asset at any stage of the transaction. Clinton’s Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000 would keep derivatives away from any regulation, setting the stage for the collapse of the financial system just eight years later. In the meantime, the derivatives market exploded and Koch was in perfect position to take full advantage.

Hoarding the Light

The whole Y2K “panic” would become the subject of much ridicule after the absurd warnings of a computer glitch apocalypse failed to materialize. But, behind the scenes, the new millennium was teeming with multi-millionaires and billionaires across corporate America frothing at the mouth about what many of them knew was coming.

Coupled with the recently deregulated energy markets and new financial instruments around oil and gas, the Kochs and the Enrons of the world could see what regular people couldn’t possibly imagine. These “titans of industry” had the inside track on the country’s consumption patterns. They knew people were buying more computers, gadgets and devices as the roll out of the Internet reached critical mass and that, as a result energy consumption was about to skyrocket.

One trader at Koch Supply & Trading spotted the trend early on in 2000. Brendan O’Neil started buying natural gas options as soon as an unusual cold snap made gas prices spike in the Spring of that year. O’Neil, like his peers, knew that major gas shortages were on the horizon. By December, the price of natural gas stood at $10.48, up from $2.88 in March. He alone would make Koch $70 million on the gas trades. His team, only one of many at the Houston offices, delivered $400 million to Koch’s coffers. Koch Gateway, the pipeline division, which actually delivered the gas to the buyers made only $15.3 million that year.

Enron Corporation headquarters in Houston, Texas

The artificial run up in gas prices caused rolling blackouts, store and factory closures, even car accidents from failing traffic lights around the country. But, it was clear to Koch where the biggest source of profits lay. So it was only logical that they would pour more money and effort into creating other speculative markets for the assets they already owned.

The obvious target was electricity. Paul Weyrich’s ALEC would take on the work of selling legislators around the country on the idea of an electricity market throughout the 1990’s and it would eventually take hold in several states, but none more disastrously than in California where a liberal Democrat state senator passed the bill that created the California Power Exchange (CPE).

The “megawatt-hour” was born. Equivalent to one hour of electricity needed to power 330 homes, it was the basic unit to be bought and sold on the exchanges and the national market value was calculated to be about $215 billon dollars. The CPE was set up in a way to allow the price of electricity to float with market conditions, but capped the amount Utilities could charge the end-consumer. To protect consumers from being left without power in the event no electricity was being bought on the exchange, an emergency authority called the California Independent System Operator (ISO) was created, whose sole purpose was to buy any shortfall in electricity the market left.

It was this peculiar agency that would be the target of Koch, Enron and other energy companies to inflate their profits at the expense of the Utilities through a fraudulent scheme known as “parking”. The fraud consisted of keeping megawatt-hours off of the CPE by making fictional sales to an out-of-state Utility and then turning around and selling the same megawatt-hours to ISO at a much higher price. The more power prices rose, the greater the temptation to manipulate the market in this way.

California’s Utility companies were driven to the verge of bankruptcy with losses of $10 billion and when the scandal finally broke in early 2001, governor Gary Davis worked out a bailout plan to save them. It took many more months before the underlying market “dysfunction” was addressed. Koch and friends continued to gouge their clients until the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) finally stepped in. Koch quietly settled the charges brought against them for a cool $4.1 million.

Leviathan

The 21st century would find Koch Industries ready to indulge its voracious appetite. Just as it helped to create the economic conditions that would ultimately destroy the Farmland co-op and facilitate the purchase of its fertilizer plants, the success of its stealth political operation in tandem with other American oligarchs would free them up to act in their own interests while convincing others it was in theirs, as well.

FDR’s New Deal was truly a vestige. Workers’ rights were widely perceived as an evil of defunct communist systems of government and, thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, the 0.01% could finally use their wealth openly to finance their preferred presidential candidates without the embarrassing need to actually run themselves, as Charles’ little brother David had done in 1980.

The internet and the rise of computerized, data-driven management systems would also give Koch the tools needed to finally dispense with the pretense of MBM or other such frills when it came to keeping employees in line. The engineer in charge of the most powerful private company in America could finally trade in all those messy, self-moving parts for real-time numbers.

GO TO PART FOUR: U.S. OF KOCH >>

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