Challenging Corporate Authority
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
by Paul Cienfuegos
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 city and town in America. 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.
Yes, of course, clearcut logging and sweatshop labor and genetically engineered "food" are a big problem. But the much bigger problem is that weve 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-1990s, 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, Reclaim Democracy! in Colorado, 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 dozens of stories 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.
Our world is in terrible crisis. We need to focus on what strategies have the best chance of success, rather than those which simply postpone the destruction. Consider these dozens of projects as a guide for you and your community. Contact the organizers. Learn from their mistakes. Replicate the projects that seem to work. There is no time to lose.
(I have organized the list into thirteen 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
Residents of Shasta County, CA are circulating a 10 Strikes and You're Out ballot initiative in the town of Shasta Lake City near Redding in order to try to stop a large German corporation (Knauf) from building a fiberglas manufacturing plant there (and other toxic industry which may follow).
Contact: Protectors of Community Health, POB 1053, Shasta Lake City, CA 96019, or phone Heidi Silva at 530-472-1355
The Clinton administration is proposing an Anti-Scofflaw regulation which would prevent the federal government from entering into contracts with companies that chronically violate regulatory law.
Contact: Robert Weissman at email@example.com
A Boulder, CO organization - Reclaim Democracy! introduced for discussion (in 1998) a statewide Three Strikes and You're Dissolved ballot initiative.
Contact: 303-402-0105 or www.reclaimdemocracy.org
2. Challenging Public/ Corporate Partnerships
The Berkeley and San Francisco School Districts are effectively challenging corporate advertising in school buildings and working to get tobacco corporation food out of school cafeterias.
Contact: Center for Commercial-Free Public Education (UNPLUG) at 800-867-5841 or firstname.lastname@example.org or www.commercialfree.org
3. Local Communities, Locally Owned Businesses and Entire States Organizing to Defend Themselves Against Corporate Power
In November 98, 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 democracy. Since then, Democracy Teach-Ins have been organized on hundreds of college campuses, many of them with their own active chapters. They strive to unite students, campus workers, and the working public in asserting democratic authority over our 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
A new ballot initiative campaign in Oregon was launched in winter/spring 2000 - the Oregon Human Rights Initiative - which attempts to statutorily codify the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights (signed into law 51 years ago by virtually every nation in the world), making adherence to these principles a requirement to do civic or commercial business in Oregon. Non-compliance can result in charter revocation.
Contact: chief co-petitioner Paul Van DeVelder, 541-752-8450 or email@example.com or
A number of years ago, the town of Jay, Maine passed an ordinance which gave the town the power to license, monitor and enforce the same environmental regulations that the state Dept of Environmental Protection, and the federal E.P.A. do. In the town is a pulp&paper mill owned by International Paper company.
Contact: Peter Kellman, 207-676-3356 or firstname.lastname@example.org
The San Francisco County Board of Supervisors has passed a law requiring all corporations doing business in the county to offer full benefits for same-sex partners. It has already withstood a court challenge.
Contact: City of SF at 415-554-6141. Read the full text at www.cisf.ca.us/infoleg.html
The Institute for Local Self Reliance (ILSR) in Minnesota launched the New Rules Project, which helps local communities to organize against the ravages of absentee corporate decision making by "identifying the rules that could close the gap between those who make the decisions and those who feel the impacts new rules that could bring both authority and responsibility to the local level."
Contact: 612-379-3815 or www.newrules.org
4. 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
In Sonoma County, CA, the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center's 'Food Systems, Corporations and Democracy Program' has two local projects aimed at shifting local decision making from the realm of private, property-based, corporate, "market" decisions to the realm of public, democratic decisions focused on the "commonwealth":
1) Sonoma County Green Genes is organizing to pass resolutions at city councils and school boards calling for a moratorium on the release of all genetically engineered crops and foods, and for full corporate liability for harms resulting from any releases of GMOs. (The city of Sebastopol has already passed the resolution); and
2) The Occidental Town Hall Coalition has organized a dozen town hall meetings around the county - each attended by 250 to 500 people - to discuss the problem of and strategize solutions to the expansion of corporate-owned industrial vineyards, and the resulting loss of diverse small and family farms and local agrarian culture. They are writing ordinances that redefine "farming" and county land use policies away from corporate interests, and toward the interest of the people and wild nature.
Contact: Dave Henson, 707-874-1557 ext 4 or email@example.com
5. Suing Governments for Violating the Federal Constitution
A British Columbia-based organization - Defence of Canadian Liberty Committee is suing the Canadian government alleging that Canada's participation in the MAI/WTO process of global corporatization is unconstitutional.
Contact: Connie Fogal, 604-687-0588 or firstname.lastname@example.org or www.canadianliberty.bc.ca
6. From Corporate Ownership To Public Ownership
Campaigns are heating up (or are already successful) at the municipal level to return utilities to public ownership and management from the corporate giants that currently control them. Two examples follow:
1) The city of Ashland, OR is installing a fiber optic network to provide citizens with low-cost cable TV and high-speed data access. This public utility is providing service below the cost charged by large corporations.
Contact: Wes Brain at 541.482.6988 or email@example.com or www.ashlandfiber.net or www.ashland.or.us/committees/committees.asp.net
2) After four years of research and debate, a diverse coalition of people in Davis, CA has gathered enough signatures to place an initiative on the local ballot to create a Davis Municipal Utility District (DMUD). DMUD would be a community-owned energy co-op. The steering committee has formed a cooperative organization to pursue the effort, with a working title of Sustainable Utility Network Cooperative (SUN Co-op). The initiative vote would not commit DMUD to purchase the system but does create a legal entity to study the system and then conduct negotiations with PG&E Corporation. DMUD could operate like the nearly 900 electric co-ops and hundreds of citizen-owned utilities in the US, and further demonstrate the viability of ecological and democratic business practices.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com or www.dmud.org
7. Revoking Corporate Charters
The New York Attorney Generals 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 Californias 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, information about how to file such a document, and details about the endorsing organizations 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or www.heed.net
In June 1998, a retired Alabama judge acting as a private citizen filed for the charter revocation of five tobacco corporations that, he asserted, have broken state laws (some dating back to 1901) and therefore should be shut down (Philip Morris, Brown & Williamson, R.J. Reynolds, The Liggett Group, and Lorillard Corporations). The list of violated laws includes: contributing to the dependency of a minor, unlawful distribution of material harmful to a minor, endangering the welfare of a child, assault in the third degree, recklessly endangering another, deceptive business practice, and causing the delinquency of a child. The case was ultimately transferred from state to federal court and then back again, where it was dismissed with no opinion given to explain a reason. Both the governor and attorney general have close links to the tobacco industry. (Federal Citation of the case: 51 F.Supp.2d 1232)
Contact: William Wynn, 205-978-5546 or email@example.com
In March 2000, Ohio State Representative Barbara Pringle (with the help of American Friends Service Committee) wrote to the Ohio Attorney General asking that the AG initiate corporate charter revocation proceedings against the Cleveland Clinic (a non-profit corporation). The Clinic sought to purchase two Cleveland area hospitals to shut them down, thereby reducing the availability of healthcare to many Clevelanders, and continuing the trend towards consolidation. This exercise of citizen authority over corporations contributed to the Clinic's decision to instead sell the hospitals to another healthcare corporation rather than closing them.
Contact: Barbara Pringle at 614-466-5921 or www.house.state.oh.us/reps/bios/bio.cfm?DISTRICT=13
8. 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 states corporate codes.
Contact: Ward Morehouse, 212-972-9877 or firstname.lastname@example.org
9. Amending State Constitutions
Montanas 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 states 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
Anti-corporate farming laws have passed in South Dakota and Nebraska, created by citizens who won ballot initiatives to amend their state constitutions. (See section #4 for details and contact info.)
10. Challenging Corporate Personhood
In a small community on Californias 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, among its many points, disavows the personhood status of corporations, encourages public discussion on the role of corporations in public life, and urges other cities to foster similar public discussion.
Contact: Jan Edwards at Redwood Coast Alliance for Democracy, 707-882-1818 or firstname.lastname@example.org or www.iiipublishing.com/alliance.htm
11. 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. Other as yet unpublished state histories include Maine and Massachusetts.
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 Spring 2000 after much hemming and hawing by the council) 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
At its third annual national convention in May 99, the Alliance for Democracy (AfD) - with more than 60 chapters in 21 states - adopted three national action campaigns. One of them is titled, "Transforming the nature of large corporations to subordinate them to democracy". The AfD has also recently launched dozens of local Democracy Brigades to add a nonviolent direct action campaign component to its work.
Contact: 781-894-1179 or firstname.lastname@example.org or www.afd-online.org
In December 99, a new US/Canada-wide Democracy Network was formed - partially inspired by the provocative analysis of Richard Grossman and his colleagues at the Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy. It has established seven working groups that include 'Movement Building', 'Research', and 'Language' (a dictionary project entitled "Defining Democracy").
Contact: No official central contact, each group has a contact person, so feel free to ask me, Paul Cienfuegos, and Ill connect you up - 707-825-0740 or email@example.com
12. Existing Organizations Reframing or Expanding Their Work in Order to More Effectively Challenge Corporate Authority
The General Assembly of the Unitarian Universalists has founded a new organization in the US and Canada titled 'UUs for a Just Economic Community' that has a mandate to pursue eleven economic justice campaigns, including: to work on the "Periodic review, renewal, or, if necessary, revocation of corporate charters, depending on assessment of performance consistent with the public interest".
Contact: Neil MacLean, 415-641-6299 or firstname.lastname@example.org
In November 98, at the Labor Partys 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 email@example.com
United for a Fair Economy, a national organization based in Boston, has added to their existing workshops and resources - on America's income and wealth gap and the global economy - with a new training model for "Ending Corporate Rule".
Contact: 617-423-2148 or firstname.lastname@example.org or www.ufenet.org
A new U.S. campaign was launched in June '99 by the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF - one of the world's oldest peace organizations) titled Challenge Corporate Power, Assert the People's Rights. Phase I is study groups (see section #11 for details and contact info); Phase II is designing local campaigns.
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
In 1999, the National Lawyers Guild launched a new campaign to challenge corporate authority coordinated by its new Committee on Corporations, the Constitution and Human Rights.
Contact: Eric Palmer at 212-627-2656 ext 12 or firstname.lastname@example.org or www.nlg.org/committees/corporations.htm
13. Relatively new organizations which have as their primary mission to challenge corporate authority and corporate privilege, and reclaim democracy from corporate "persons", rather than focussing on particular corporate harms or industries...
Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy (POCLAD)
South Yarmouth, MA
Contact: Mary Zepernick
508-398-1145 or email@example.com or www.poclad.org
Alliance for Democracy (AfD) see also section #11
781-894-1179 or firstname.lastname@example.org or www.afd-online.org
180/ Movement for Democracy and Education (180/MDE) see also section #3
608-262-9036 or email@example.com or http://corporations.org/democracy
Democracy Unlimited of Humboldt County (DUHC) see also section #11
Contact: Paul Cienfuegos
707-822-2242 or firstname.lastname@example.org or www.monitor.net/democracyunlimited
Reclaim Democracy! see also section #1
303-402-0105 or email@example.com or www.reclaimdemocracy.org
Citizens Council on Corporate Issues (CCCI)
Vancouver, BC, Canada
Contact: Gil Yaron
604-734-1815 or firstname.lastname@example.org or www.corporateissues.org
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Contact: Tony Clarke
613-746-8374 or email@example.com or www.polarisinstitute.org
Defining Democracy Workgroup (of the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center)
Contact: Dean Ritz
406-543-3955 or firstname.lastname@example.org or www.jrpc.org
Copyright Paul Cienfuegos 2000
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 email@example.com . 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.