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Drinks With The Deal: Eli Black and the Limits of ESG

Published: April 20th, 2023
Author Matt Garcia discusses his new biography of Eli Black, a midcentury CEO whose efforts at corporate social responsibility ended in tragedy.

Eli Black was an extraordinary and ultimately tragic figure, as Matt Garcia describes on this week’s Drinks With The Deal podcast. Garcia, a professor of Latin American, Latino and Caribbean studies and history at Dartmouth College, learned of Black while researching a book on Cesar Chavez, a prominent agricultural labor leader in California from the 1960s to his death in 1993.

In 1970, Chavez and his United Farm Workers union targeted Inter Harvest Inc., then the largest producer of lettuce in California. But Black, the chairman of Inter Harvest’s corporate parent United Brands Co., quickly reached an accord with Chavez and developed a friendship with him.

That episode inspired Garcia to embark on the research for his new book “Eli and The Octopus: The CEO Who Tried to Reform One of the World’s Most Notorious Corporations,” in which Garcia tells Black’s story.

Black came to New York from Poland as a small child and was ordained as a rabbi before moving into the business world in his 20s. As an executive, Black was surprisingly sympathetic both to Chavez and to Oscar Gale, who ran a union of workers at United Brands predecessor United Fruit Co. in Honduras. But Black’s company came under financial pressure in the early 1970s, and he committed suicide in 1975 after United Fruit paid a $1.25 million bribe to Oswaldo López Arellano, the president of Honduras, to reduce the banana tax on it.

“Eli was for special responsibility. He did want to do things differently,” Garcia said on the podcast. “I wanted to understand what his failure says about those goals in our world today. If you’re going to pursue true social responsibility, I think those workers have to be at the table, to shape the destiny of that company.”

Listen to the podcast with Matt Garcia below:

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Subscribers also can read a review of the book.

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