What to do about Corporations?

There is a growing movement to rein in corporations. In Taking Care Of Business: Citizenship and the Charter of Incorporation, a 32-page booklet published in 1993, Richard Grossman and Frank T. Adams reviewed the history of corporations assuming the rights of individuals and even surpassing the rights of natural humans.

"We are out of the habit of contesting the legitimacy of corporations like International Paper, Du Pont, General Motors or Union Carbide." they wrote. "But we can challenge corporate-shielding legal doctrines and deny judges the final say over our economic lives, over the planet's flora and fauna, rivers and mountains, and over our children's future.

"We can revoke corporate charters. Our state legislatures continue to have an historic and legal obligation to amend and revoke corporate charters, along with the certificates of authority that permit corporations to conduct business outside their chartering state. Our elected state legislators are still responsible for overseeing all corporate activities."

They added, "By rewriting the laws governing corporations, we citizens can reassert the convictions of the people who struggled to resist corporate rule in the past." Among them, they asserted,

* The corporation is an artificial creation and must not enjoy the protections of the Bill of Rights.

* Corporate owners and officiers must be liable for all the harms they cause.

* No corporation should exist forever.

"Our sovereign right to decide what is produced and to organize our work is as American as a serf-governing people's right to vote," Grossman and Adams wrote. "We can assert our historical and legal rights over the fiction that is the modern corporation."

In 1995 Grossman and Ward Morehouse appealed to the National Lawyers Guild to help craft legal strategies to overturn the power of corporations, from revoking corporate charters to defending people and organizations from lawsuits designed to intimidate the public and other efforts to deny speech, assembly, and related rights.

Grossman, in an interview with the Corporate Crime Reporter published Nov. 24, said he was an activist who started researching corporate history in the 1980s. That led to the publication with Adams of Taking Care of Business. He and other "gray-haired people who have been politically active for a long time" formed the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy (POCLAD) to explore alternatives to conventional activism.

Grossman and POCLAD are seeking to reframe the debate over corporate power. Grossman said of corporate officials, "The smartest among them also understand that as long as they keep the citizen groups on the defensive, fighting corporate harms one-by-one, fighting their next NAFTA, GATT, MAI, they keep us from going on the offensive. They keep us from strategies that challenge their authority. They even have us believing that when we ban one chemical, or stop a dump here, or stop a factory there, or pass some little thing like the Maine Clean Elections law, it is a great setback for the corporations.

"As long as they keep us thinking that way, then we are not thinking about who we are as people, we are not thinking about our sovereign authority, and we are not aspiring to the revolutionary idea of self-governance. As long as we are not challenging corporate authority to govern, then we are always on the defensive, we are always fighting the symptoms."

David Korten, author of When Corporations Rule the World [Kumarian Press, 1995] wrote, "Policies advocated by free market or corporate libertarian ideologues have led to the creation of an economic system out of control. ... To reclaim our economic spaces, we must first reclaim our political spaces from the corporations and other big money interests that control them."

To reclaim political spaces, he proposes prohibiting political advertising on television; placing strict limits on individual campaign contributions and campaign spending; stripping corporations of their fictitious human rights; and getting corporations entirely out of politics. He also would eliminate the concentration of media ownership by prohibiting any single individual or corporation from owning more than one major electronic or print media outlet. He would make it easier for citizens to challenge the charters of corporations that demonstrate disregard for the law or otherwise fail to serve the public good.

Korten also would rigorously enforce anti-trust laws to break up concentrations of corporate power and require corporations to give workers and/or communities the first option to buy out the assets before a sale or merger could take place. He also would reform tax policies to encourage corporations to be more socially responsible.

Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, has proposed a Social Responsibility Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. His proposed amendment would require every corporation in the United States with annual revenues of $20 million or more to renew its charter every 20 years.

To get a charter renewal, the corporation would have to prove that it serves the common good, gives its workers substantial power to shape their work conditions and has a history of social responsibility to the communities in which it operates, sells goods and/or advertises. If the corporation does not receive a new charter, its assets would be distributed to another community group that could run the corporation without decreasing employment or socially useful services while increasing the corporation's ability to act in a socially responsible manner.

"Don't quibble over the details!" Lerner wrote in the July/August 1997 issue of Tikkun. "... But get the concept -- corporations are created by us, they receive all kinds of special benefits by virtue of the state's conception of them as 'individuals,' and we have every right to set the conditions under which they should operate, or whether they should operate at all."

Lerner, who is promoting a movement based on a "politics of meaning," concedes that the Social Responsibility Amendment is unlikely to pass. But it would provide "a focus for organizing and a clarity of the bottom line."

More immediately, he wrote, local activists could work on Social Responsibility Initiatives to get cities, counties and states to require corporations to file Ethical Impact Reports when they seek government contracts. The contracts would then be awarded to the corporation which, while otherwise able to competently fulfill the contract at a reasonable cost, has the best record of social responsibility.

In many areas, such initiatives can be placed on ballots by petition. Lerner said the passage of Social Responsibility Initiatives at the local level would give credibility to the Social Responsibility Amendment.

The Alliance for Democracy, taking its inspiration from Ronnie Dugger's "Call to Hope and Action," originally printed in August 1995 by The Nation, is seeking to organize a populist grassroots movement to end corporate rule. Among the national campaigns approved by delegates at its second national convention this past November in Atchison, Kansas, were campaigns exploring the Nature of Corporations and Corporate Governance; to draft a model federal law defining, chartering and controlling interstate corporations; to end corporate personhood with a constitutional amendment. Those recommendations have been sent to the Alliance membership for ratification. -- Jim Cullen For more information, including abridged versions of Taking Care of Business, When Corporations Rule the World and other links and essays on corporate governance, see the Ending Corporate Governance web site (http://www.ratical.com/corporations/index.html). Taking Care Of Business is available for $4 from Charter, Ink., at the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy, P.O. Box 806, Cambridge, MA 02140. For information on the Alliance for Democracy, write P.O. Box 683, Lincoln, MA 01773; phone 617-259-9395; email peoplesall@aol.com. When Corporations Rule the World is available from Kumarian Press, 630 Oakwood Ave. Suite 119, West Hartford, CT 06110-1529, price $ 29.95 plus postage. Contact Tikkun magazine, 26 Fell Street, San Francisco, CA 94102; phone 415-575-1200 email magazine@tikkun.org.

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