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 society."

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 military dictatorship.

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,

Transnational Corporations & the Third World

Oil watch