Wall Street Journal

Wall Street Journal, December 24, 1991

Protest Group Becomes Thorn in the Side for Bayer on Environment, Other Issues

Duesseldorf – Bayer AG publishes its own magazine on environmental protection, runs a 24-hour-a-day emergency hotline for complaints about pollution, and has spent two billion marks ($1.3 billion) on environmental protection since 1987. But a lot of that goes down the drain when shareholders see a dead seal dumped in Bayer´s driveway as a protest that the company is allegedly poisoning the North Sea.

Since 1983, the German chemical and pharmaceuticals concern has learned to expect that sort of thing at its shareholders meeting each year from an environmentalist group called Coordination Against Bayer Dangers. The group owns shares in Bayer so that its members can claim the microphone at meetings. It also distributes fliers, publishes an anti-Bayer newspaper and circulates petitions against the multinational chemical company year round.

“But the annual shareholders meeting is the Olympics for them – the high point of their year,” says Wido Mosen, a spokesman at Bayer, who spends a major piece of his time fending off the group. (…) The group defines itself as a self-help network of people either interested in Bayer or injured or affected by Bayer´s operations. Stemming originally from a community action group founded in 1978 after an accident at a Bayer plant in Wuppertal, Germany, the group was registered as an official association in 1983. Today, the group claims 5.000 “cooperation partners” around the world who follow Bayer´s activities with a critical, environmentally conscious eye.

But often the group´s agenda strays far from the path of pure environmentalism. One year the group brought a model of a gilded calf to the shareholders meeting to protest the company´s pursuit of profit allegedly at the expense of the environment and workers´ safety.

“They pass themselves off as devout environmentalists, but they clearly have a poliltical, ideological agenda,” bayer´s Mr. Mosen maintains. He says many of the groups´s board members belonged to the German Communist Party and that the group received financial support from the party.

Regina Guenter, manager of Coordination Against Bayer Dangers, confirms that many of the founding members used to belong to the Communist Party, but she adds that members also came from a broad spectrum of other political parties and church organizations. Ms. Guenter denies that the group received support of directions from the party. “It´s unbelievable that Bayer is still dredging up theses reproaches of communism,” Ms. Guenter says. “It was an easy way for Bayer to try to discredit us by preying on the popular fear of communists.” She adds: “Certainly we´re politically involved and active, but what organization isn´t?”

Bayer was particularly irked by a 1987 statement in which the group accused Bayer of injuring democratic principles, human rights and political fairness “in its limitless quest for gain and profit.” The statement further charged that “unpopular critics are spied upon and put under pressure; conservative and elevated politicians are supported and financed.”

Bayer sued for defamation and, after two stages of appeal in 1987 and 1988, succeeded in having the group barred from publishing such statemtns. But just last week, it was announced that a Karlsruhe court (German Supreme Court) had overturned the earlier findings, ruling that such statements are protected under Germans´ right to free speech.

Coordination Against Bayer Dangers says its primary goal is to provide more information about Bayer´s world-wide operations and to call for more environmental protection and protection of workers. The group also pushes for Bayer to stop producing materials it considers harmful and to adopt production methods that “don´t only look at the size of the market but also take other social criteria into account;” says Ellen Frings, a member of the group.

By Audrey Choi, Staff Reporter