On July Fourth 1997, I was sailing up Interstate 35 at night, doing about 70, when–BAM!–the Firestone tire on my truck came apart. Suddenly, the right front was riding on screaming metal, sending up a fountain of sparks like some berserk firecracker, truck swaying out of control, passenger screaming.
So I’ve been following the Firestone recall story with considerable interest. Almost becoming a statistic will do that for you. According to the National Highway Safety Administration, 62 people died after Firestone tires separated and caused Ford SUVs to roll over–the most deaths ever for a safety recall involving cars. All parties are involved in a grand old blamefest over who should have known first and done something earlier.
According to the Ford Motor Co., Bridgestone/Firestone began receiving numerous complaints of injuries and property damage from Firestone tires in 1997. Some of the recalled tires (ATX, ATX II and Wilderness AT) had rates of injury and personal damage claims up to 100 times greater than the tires not recalled. Ford said it learned of the high claims rate after the company did its own computer analysis of Firestone data. Safety groups have been complaining about SUV rollovers for some time and are demanding the automakers redesign the things. Rollovers kill 9,500 Americans a year.
All this mess does offer some instructive points beyond the general finger-pointing concerning labor law, campaign financing and George W. Bush’s beloved tort reform. For one thing, most of the problem tires came from Firestone’s factory in Decatur, Ill., which experienced quality problems from 1994 to 1996, when the factory was operated mostly by replacement workers brought in after a labor dispute. Poor old labor has been fighting for years over this replacement-worker problem, saying it should be illegal because it’s unfair. Looks as though it could be worse than unfair. You will once again be inspired by our system of campaign financing upon learning that in May, after 27 years of study, federal regulators announced a plan to publish rollover ratings for cars and light trucks. They were to be rated by one to five stars. It took 27 years because the auto industry kept objecting.
So then the auto industry’s lobbyists went to work on the Senate, and lo, the Senate inserted a provision into the transportation budget this summer barring the regulators from issuing the rules and ordering the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a one-year study of the regulators’ 27-year study of the problem and the new ratings system. As we have noted before, we have a government of corporate special interests, by corporate special interests and for corporate special interests–and this will not change until we change the way that campaigns are financed. So now we get to the grand American tradition of suing the rascals. Except, if you live in Texas, you’re going to have some trouble.
Mary Alice Davis of The Austin American-Statesman recently wrote an excellent piece on three Texas Supreme Court decisions that seriously limit our right to sue corporations. Most class-action lawsuits work only because a large number of consumers have been cheated or hurt by something that a corporation does. Individuals can’t afford to sue a big company over getting ripped off for $50 or $100. They have to clump together to sue.
But the state Supreme Court recently decided three cases in which those cheated or injured did not constitute a class. The lone dissenter on the court, Justice Jim Baker, said that “we all know what is going on here. What is going on here is that Texas Supreme Court justices are getting campaign contributions from big companies.”
A Fort Worth Star-Telegram article by Miles Moffeit and Diana Hunt detailed the contributions of the Halliburton Co. under Dick Cheney to the justices and the railroad commissioners, and the ensuing spate of favorable opinions for the company. What is going on here is that under tort reform (which was supposed to stop preposterous lawsuits), we are losing the right to seek justice in the courts. The corporations have bought our legislators, bought our judges, and prevented regulation and even ratings by the executive branch. That’s all three branches of government.
Plus, the corporations are rapidly taking away the legal tools that the labor movement won at such painful cost to defend the rights of workers. Does the phrase “concentration of power” mean anything to you?
Molly Ivins is a former Observer editor and a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Her book with Louis Dubose (Shrub: The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush) is being re-issued in a new edition. You may write to her at [email protected].