Earth Island Joins Move
to Dissolve UNOCAL
Earth Island Journal-Fall 1998
On September 10, attorneys for the International Law Project
for Human, Economic and Environmental Defense (HEED) filed a petition
with California's Attorney General to start proceedings to revoke
the charter of the Union Oil Company of California (Unocal), a
company some critics have called "one of the worst corporate
wrongdoers of our time."
The petition accuses Unocal of "violating local, state,
federal and international law, acting unethically, contravening
public policy, usurping political power, and causing great harm
to the people of California and the world."
"Charter revocation is a particularly apt legal mechanism
to deal with corporate repeat offenders," according to HEED,
part of the National Lawyers' Guild. HEED believes that if California's
"three strikes" laws (jail mandatory after three felony
convictions) were applied to corporations, "Unocal, a recidivist
polluter, would have long since been out of business."
HEED's lead attorney in the case, Loyola Law School Professor
Robert W. Benson, believes that the petition can "help change
the political discourse about the power of corporations in our
Thirty human rights, social justice, environmental groups
and individuals have joined as petitioners on this historic challenge.
The petitioners include Amazon Watch, Global Exchange, the Free
Burma Coalition, Project Underground, Rainforest Action Network,
the National Organization for Women and Earth Island Institute.
In the early decades of our nation, corporations were viewed
with suspicion by states and articles of incorporation were intended
to grant corporation powers only for narrow purposes and for a
set period of time.
Statutes permitting the revocation of corporate charters still
exist in every US state. "This petition," Benson observes,
"erases [the] historical amnesia."
According to the HEED petition, "courts have always seen
the corporations as 'the mere creature of law.' [and]. . . have
warned that it is crucial to maintain state sovereignty over corporations
as a check on the slavery that would result from the aggregations
of capital in the hands of a few individuals and corporations."
In his 1910 inaugural speech as Governor of New Jersey, Woodrow
Wilson declared: "A corporation exists, not of natural right,
but L only by license of law, and the law... is responsible for
what it creates. If law is at liberty to adjust the general conditions
of society itself, it is at liberty to control these great instrumentalities
which nowadays, in so large part, determine the character of society."
California's Code of Civil Procedure (Section 803) and Corporations
Code (Section 1801) require that the Attorney General, acting
alone, when "directed to do so by the governor," or
"upon a complaint of a private party," must initiate
revocation proceedings when there is "reason to believe"
that any corporation has violated its charter or the law.
Under California case law; a single violation by a corporation
is sufficient to trigger revocation and any Attorney General who
refuses to act can be ordered to act by the courts. Unfortunately,
Benson says, many of California's attorneys general have become
"soft" on corporate crime. The last time the revocation
statute was invoked was in 1976 when Attorney General Evelle Younger,
a conservative Republican, moved to revoke the charter of a private
water company that was accused of delivering contaminated drinking
water to the public.
The Case Against Unocal
The petition lists ten counts of illegal behavior on the part
of the California-based oil giant. Included are enslavement and
forced labor; forced relocation of Burmese villages and villagers;
killings, homicide, rape and torture; environmental devastation;
cultural genocide of indigenous and tribal people; aiding and
abetting oppression of women and gays; unfair and unethical treatment
of workers; usurpation of political authority; and deception of
the courts, shareholders and the public.
A number of the charges against Unocal - i.e., forced labor,
forced relocation, crimes against humanity - stem from the company's
construction of a natural gas pipeline in partnership with Burma's
By striking profitable alliances with Burma, the petition
states, Unocal has "taken sides in military conflicts, openly
flouting the democratically elected representatives of the Burmese
people and arrogantly contravening American foreign policy as
expressed by the Congress and the President."
The petition also criticizes Unocal for "dealing with
the extremist Taliban militia of Afghanistan to build a pipeline
across that country" despite the Taliban's imposition of
"the world's most severe gender apartheid upon women."
The petition also notes that under Taliban rule, "gays convicted
as 'sodomites' are buried alive."
In Canada, Unocal has refused to suspend oil and gas activities
on the territory of the Lubicon Cree, despite a UN Human Rights
Committee finding that resource exploitation "threatens the
way of life and culture of the Lubicon."
"Unocal has treated workers as disposable cogs,"
the petition reads. [C]onsistent with its boast that it no longer
thinks of itself as a US energy company, [Unocal] has abandoned
any future with US workers altogether in order to finance its
move into the global economy of low-paid and slave-labor overseas."
On the question of environmental devastation, the petition
characterizes Unocal as "an incorrigible recidivist polluter"
and "an engine of destructive greenhouse gases" whose
daily business practices are contributing to an life-threatening
climate onslaught of costly, change that amounts to "ecocide
under international law." :
Unocal is remembered as "the primary culprit in the notorious
oil blowout in the Santa Barbara Channel that shocked Californians
in 1969." In Avila Beach, California, an entire town was
ruined when a Unocal leak polluted the groundwater and a nearby
beach. A former Unocal plant in Rodeo, California, experienced
numerous health-threatening safety incidents and chemical spills.
Thousands of residents were exposed to toxic releases. The refinery
was sold to Tosco Refining in 1997.
The petition concludes that, on the basis of the company's
extensive record of abuses, California's Attorney General has
no recourse but to ask the courts to dissolve the Union Oil Company
of California and to appoint a receiver and preserve company assets
pending dissolution." The petition also asks that the dissolution
should be managed "to fully protect jobs, workers, stockholders,
unions, communities, the environment, suppliers, customers, governmental
entities and the public interest."
For more info, contact HEED, National Lawyers Guild, 8124
W. Third St., No. 201, Los Angeles, CA 90048. Fax: (2i3) 380-3769,
Corporations & the Third World