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Dozens of New Strategies are Sprouting Up Across the US and Canada
Some of Them Dating Back to Previous Centuries
That Challenge Illegitimate Corporate Authority and Privilege.
Paradigm Shift: Challenging Corporate Authority
by Paul Cienfuegos, Democracy Unlimited of Humboldt County
For most of the 20th century, American citizens have become accustomed to challenging corporate harms and corporate abuses of authority one harm at a time—one clearcut Timber Harvest Plan at a time, one toxic spill at a time, one plant closure at a time. It wasn't always like this.
From the American Revolution through to the end of the 19th century, in the words of Richard Grossman,"Earlier generations of Americans were quite clear that a corporation was an artificial, subordinate entity with no inherent rights of its own, and that incorporation was a privilege bestowed by the sovereign people. For example, in 1834 the Pennsylvania Legislature declared: 'A corporation in law is just what the incorporation act makes it. It is the creature of the law and may be molded to any shape or for any purpose that the Legislature may deem most conducive to the common good.'"
Grossman continues,"People understood that they had a civic responsibility not to create artificial entities which could harm the body politic, interfere with the mechanisms of self-governance, and assault their sovereignty. They also understood that they did not elect their agents to positions in government to sell off the sovereignty of the people."
Here are a few examples of how different the rules were in the US until the late 1800's. In many states, corporations were prohibited from owning other corporations, prohibited from donating to political candidates or charitable organizations, and prohibited from owning any land beyond what was necessary for the carrying out of their chartered duties. Boards of directors and stockholders were held personally liable for all harms and debts. The "limited liability corporation," as we know it today, did not exist.
Sadly, as we enter the 21st century, few Americans have any idea that such a history even existed in this country. Yet this is starting to change. Beginning in the early 1990's—thanks to the seminal work of Richard Grossman and his colleagues at the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy (POCLAD)—Americans started to rethink how we go about challenging the harms that corporations get away with day in and day out in every community. We began to rediscover what an appropriate relationship looks like in a democracy between 'we the people' and the fictitious subordinate creation we call the "corporation." And we began to learn how to reframe our analysis of what the problem is.
...the much bigger problem is that we've allowed fictitious corporate "persons" to usurp our authority as citizens to make critical societal decisions.
Yes, of course, clearcut logging and sweatshop labor and genetically engineered "food" are a big problem. But the much bigger problem is that we've allowed fictitious corporate "persons" to usurp our authority as citizens to make these and other critical societal decisions which affect all of us and the natural world.
If we no longer pleaded with corporate leaders to cause a little less harm, what would we do? If we no longer celebrated as victories every brief delay in the corporate devastation of our world, what would we celebrate?
By the mid-1990's, new groups were sprouting up across the US and Canada, and asking themselves these questions. Each was beginning to experiment with a different set of tools than anyone had used for a century. Groups like "Democracy Unlimited" in California, "180/Movement for Democracy and Education" in Wisconsin, "Friends of the Constitution" in Nebraska, and "Citizens Council on Corporate Issues" in British Columbia, are all examples of this fledgling new movement.
Clearly, to ask people of every ideology to rethink how they respond to corporate harm is a very big task, so a number of groups are beginning with public education strategies. For example, in my community, 600 local residents came together for nine hours of Town Hall meetings last year to discuss the question, "Can we have democracy when large corporations wield so much power and wealth under law?" (Videotapes are available.)
I am going to share with you numerous examples of American and Canadian citizens educating and organizing themselves and others—no longer simply challenging individual corporate harms, but going after corporate privilege and illegitimate corporate authority. There is tremendous diversity in our goals and strategies—just what one would expect in a fledgling new social movement.
Yes, it's still a small number of groups, but the number is beginning to grow rapidly, and there's no question in my mind that this growth represents a profound shift beginning to take place in the consciousness of citizens.
Consider these dozens of projects as a guide for you and your community. Contact the organizers. Learn from their mistakes, and replicate the projects that seem to work. There is no time to lose. (I have organized the list into 10 categories for easier perusal.)
1. Bold Responses to Corporations Which Chronically Break the Law
The "Wayne Township Ordinance" (Mifflin County, PA) was enacted into law in 1998 by a 3-0 vote, and has since also passed in Thompson Township. It prohibits any corporation from doing business in the township (even those that are already located there) if it has a history of consistently violating any regulatory laws (environmental, labor, etc), and further prohibits any corporation from doing business there if any of its current directors sit on other corporate boards which consistently violate regulatory law. Contact: Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), 717-530-0931 or www.celdf.org
2. Local Communities Organizing to Defend Themselves Against Corporate Power
In November 1998, hundreds of campus organizers from across North America met at the Campus Democracy Convention and formed the "180/ Movement for Democracy and Education," a chapter-based organization that stands in opposition to the corporatization of education as well as other forms of institutionalized hierarchy and oppression, and calls for a 180 degree turn towards asserting democratic authority over their schools. Ongoing projects include: challenging the authority of corporate-controlled boards of regents, mobilizing opposition to the WTO, forcing administrators to stop purchasing from sweatshops, and exposing corporate-controlled research programs. Contact: 608-262-9036 or email@example.com or http://corporations.org/democracy
The Boulder Independent Business Alliance (BIBA) unites independent businesses to compete effectively against corporate chain stores. Recent work includes the "Community Vitality Act" currently under consideration by the Boulder City Council. This legislation helps demolish the myth of the "business interest" by supporting alliances among small businesses that are victims of the chain stores. BIBA is also facilitating the creation of IBA's in other cities (two to date). Contact: 303-402-1575 or firstname.lastname@example.org or www.boulder-iba.org
3. Prohibiting (or Defining) Corporate Involvement in Particular Industries
New farming laws in Nebraska ("Initiative 300"-1982), South Dakota ("Amendment E"-1998), and Pennsylvania (1999) ban non-family-owned corporations from engaging in farming or ranching, or owning farmland. Nebraska and South Dakota achieved their success through ballot initiatives which amended their state constitutions. "Friends of the Constitution" is a Nebraska coalition of 18 farm, church, and environmental groups which joined together to defend and enforce "Initiative 300". A similar measure was achieved by two Pennsylvania townships (Wells and Thompson) through ordinances passed by their respective township governments. There are also a number of PA townships discussing similar legislation which would ban corporate logging or forest land ownership.
Contacts: South Dakota-Dakota Rural Action, 605-697-5204 or email@example.com or www.worc.org/member.html#dra Nebraska-Nancy Thompson at FoC, 402-494-9117 or firstname.lastname@example.org or www.i300.org Pennsylvania—Tom Linzey at Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), 717-530-0931 or www.celdf.org
4. Revoking Corporate Charters
The New York Attorney General's office has shown surprising leadership recently in challenging corporate charters. The previous Republican AG (Dennis Vacco) successfully revoked the charters of two non-profit tax-exempt front groups for the tobacco corporations (Tobacco Institute and Council for Tobacco Research), and seized and distributed their assets to two public institutions. The current Democratic AG (Eliot Spitzer) proposed—in a pre-election speech—a "death penalty" for corporations that cause serious harm, though he has failed to take any action since his election. Contact: Attorney General's office in Albany, www.oag.state.ny.us
On 10 September '98, the National Lawyers Guild (joined by 30 other groups and individuals) filed a 129-page legal petition to California's previous Republican Attorney General Dan Lungren requesting that he revoke the charter of Union Oil Company of California (UNOCAL corporation) for its decades of lawbreaking and global harms. He responded with a terse non-explanation. On 19 April '99, now joined by 150 additional endorsing organizations and individuals, the petition was resubmitted to the newly elected Democratic Attorney General Bill Lockyer, who also promptly responded with a brief non-response. (A book including the petition and information about how to file such a document can be purchased for $12 from the Alliance for Democracy, 681 Main St, Suite 16, Waltham, MA 02451.) Contact: Robert Benson, 213-736-1094 or email@example.com or www.heed.net
5. Rewriting State Corporate Codes
In 1999, a small group of citizen activists wrote a model "Corporation Code" for the state of New Jersey that reins in illegitimate corporate privileges. Their choice of states was not a coincidence, as New Jersey was known as the "traitor state" at the turn of the century for overturning more than a century of legal tradition regarding the defining of and citizen control over corporations by state legislatures. The draft document may be useful to anyone wishing to organize to amend their state's corporate codes. Contact: Ward Morehouse, 212-972-9877 or firstname.lastname@example.org
6. Amending State Constitutions
Montana's Supreme Court—in a landmark ruling on 20 Oct 1999—found the State (without showing a compelling state interest) cannot allow activities to continue that have the potential to poison the environment. The ruling came in an appeal by two environmental groups challenging an exemption allowing mining activities to degrade rivers. This was the first time that the court had tested a Montanan's constitutional "right to a clean and healthful environment" (Article II, Section 3 passed at their 1972 Constitutional Convention). The court stated, "Our constitution does not require that dead fish float on the surface of our state's rivers and streams before its farsighted environmental protections can be invoked." Contact: Tom France at National Wildlife Federation Resource Center in Missoula, 406-721-6705 or www.nwf.org
Long-time Oregon citizen activist Lloyd Marbet announced in May 2000 his intention to organize a state ballot initiative campaign which, if successful in November 2002, would amend the OR Constitution to prohibit anyone other than a "natural person" (no corporate "persons") from donating to any candidate or ballot initiative campaign. He is also running for Oregon Secretary of State in the November 2000 election on a platform which includes defending "the sovereignty of natural persons." Contact: Lloyd Marbet, 503-637-3549 or email@example.com or www.marbet.org
7. Challenging Corporate Personhood
In a small community on California's north coast, a "Resolution on Corporate Personhood in the City of Point Arena" was passed by the City Council in a 4-1 vote on 25 April 2000. The resolution disavows the personhood status of corporations, and encourages public discussion on the role of corporations in public life. Contact: Jan Edwards at Redwood Coast Alliance for Democracy, 707-882-1818 or firstname.lastname@example.org or www.iiipublishing.com/alliance.htm
8. Strengthening American Democratic Processes by First Educating Citizens About Our History, and Thus Beginning to Reclaim Our Culture and Our Language
"Citizens Over Corporations," a unique 52-page pamphlet on the history of corporate power and democratic movements in Ohio, was published in 1999 by the Ohio Committee on Corporations, Law and Democracy, a project of the Northeast Ohio American Friends Service Committee. (Send $3.50 to obtain a copy—checks to AFSC, 513 W. Exchange St, Akron, OH 44302.) Pamphlets such as this need to be researched and written for every state in the Union as a necessary first step in designing campaigns to reclaim our authority over our corporate creations. Contact: Greg Coleridge, 330-253-7151 or email@example.com
"Measure F: The Arcata Advisory Initiative on Democracy and Corporations" won by 58% of the vote in November '98 in Arcata, CA. It called for: (1) two Town Hall meetings (April and May '99) on the topic: "Can we have democracy when large corporations wield so much power and wealth under law?"—attended by about 600 residents-almost 5% of local voters; and (2) the creation of a standing committee of city council on "Democracy and Corporations" (forming summer 2000) to begin to rein in the authority and privileges of large corporations doing business in Arcata. Contact: Democracy Unlimited, 707-822-2242 or firstname.lastname@example.org or www.monitor.net/democracyunlimited
As part of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom's "Challenge Corporate Power, Assert the People's Rights" national campaign, six-session study groups are being formed around the country to "explore the history and roots of corporate power, examine global corporatization, decolonize our minds, and participate in democratic conversation." Copies of study materials are available. Contact: Charmaine Sprengelmeyer, 215-563-5527 or email@example.com or www.wilpf.org
9. Existing Organizations Reframing or Expanding Their Work in Order to More Effectively Challenge Corporate Authority
In November '98, at the Labor Party's first Constitutional Convention, a resolution was passed unanimously-entitled "A Workplace Bill of Rights"—which reframes the rights of workers to include worker (i.e. citizen) authority over their subordinate corporate institutions. Contact: Ed Bruno, 617-531-0901 or firstname.lastname@example.org
The Northeast Ohio American Friends Service Committee (AFSC, the Quakers) is challenging state for-profit and not-for-profit corporate codes, looking at charter revocation, and unmasking federal and state regulatory agencies. Contact: Greg Coleridge, 330-253-7151 or email@example.com
10. Relatively new organizations which have as their primary mission to challenge corporate authority and corporate privilege, and reclaim democracy from corporate "persons," rather than focusing on particular corporate harms or industries...
Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy (POCLAD)
South Yarmouth, MA
Contact: Mary Zepernick
508-398-1145 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Alliance for Democracy (AfD)
781-894-1179 or email@example.com
180/ Movement for Democracy and Education (180/MDE) - see also section #2
608-262-9036 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Democracy Unlimited of Humboldt County (DUHC) - see also section #8
Contact: Paul Cienfuegos
707-822-2242 or email@example.com
303-402-0105 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Citizens Council on Corporate Issues (CCCI)
Vancouver, BC, Canada
Contact: Gil Yaron
604-734-1815 or email@example.com
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Contact: Tony Clarke
613-746-8374 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Defining Democracy Workgroup (of the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center)
Contact: Dean Ritz
406-543-3955 or email@example.com
Copyright Paul Cienfuegos 2000
This essay has been heavily edited for length. The full document — almost twice the length — is viewable on the Democracy Unlimited website http://www.monitor.net/democracyunlimited/.
Paul Cienfuegos is the co-founding director of Democracy Unlimited of Humboldt County based in Arcata, CA, and the co-author of Measure F: the Arcata Advisory Initiative on Democracy and Corporations.
For information about the work of his organization or the workshops he leads ("First Steps in Dismantling Corporate Rule"), or to comment on this article, contact him at 707-825-0740 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Paul also runs a social change bookstore with over 200 titles on democracy and corporations (100fires.com). Paul wishes to sincerely thank Dean Ritz, Molly Morgan, and Patrick Reinsborough for the substantial research assistance they provided for this article.