Challenging Corporate Authority
by Paul Cienfuegos
Earth Island Journal, Spring 2001
For most of the 20th century, Americans became accustomed
to challenging corporate abuses of authority one clearcut at a
time, one toxic spill at a time, one plant closure at a time.
It wasn't always like this. According to author and activist 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."
Until the late 1800's, in many US 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 to carry out 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.
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, (508) 398-1145, www.poclad.org] - Americans
started to rethink how we go about challenging corporations.
Clearcut logging, 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 critical societal decisions
that affect the natural world.
Since the mid-1990's, a growing number of anti-corporate groups
have been sprouting up around the world. Consider this short list
of projects as a guide. Contact the organizers. Learn from their
victories and mistakes. Replicate the projects that seem to work.
There is no time to lose.
A Grassroots Anti-Corporate Guide
* THE WAYNE TOWNSHIP ORDINANCE (Mifflin County, PA), enacted
into law in 1998 by a 3-0 vote (and since passed in Thompson Township),
prohibits any corporation from doing business in the township
if it has a history of consistently violating environmental, health,
or labor laws. Corporations are banned from doing business in
the township if any of its current directors sit on other corporate
boards that consistently violate regulatory law. Contact: Community
Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), (717) 530-0931, www.celdf.arg
* THE 180 MOVEMENT FOR DEMOCRACY AND EDUCATION was formed
in November 1998, when hundreds of campus organizers met at the
Campus Democracy Convention. The chapter-based MDE stands in opposition
to the corporatization of education and calls for a 180-degree-turn
towards democratic control over schools. Ongoing projects include
challenging corporate-controlled boards of regents and exposing
corporate financed research. Contact: (608) 262-9036, http://corporations.
* THE BOULDER INDEPENDENT BUSINESS ALLIANCE (BIBA) unites
independent businesses to compete against the juggernaut of corporate
chainstores. BIBA is also facilitating the creation of IBA's in
other cities. Contact: (303) 402-1575, www.boulder-iba.org
* Reclaim Democracy! (303) 402-0105, www. reclaimdemocracy.
* NEW FARMING LAWS in Nebraska (Initiative 300), South Dakota
(Amendment E), and Pennsylvania ban non-family-owned corporations
from engaging in farming or ranching, or owning farmland. A number
of Pennsylvania townships are discussing similar legislation to
ban corporate logging or forestland ownership. Contacts: South
Dakota - Dakota Rural Action, (605) 697-5204, www. worc org/member.
* Nebraska - Nancy Thompson at Friends of the Constitution,
(402) 494-911 7, www.i300.org. Pennsylvania - Tom Linzey (CELDF)
* THE NEW YORK ATTORNEY GENERAL s office has shown commendable
leadership in challenging corporate charters. Former Republican
Attorney General Dennis Vacco successfully revoked the charters
of two tax-exempt tobacco front groups (the Tobacco Institute
and the Council for Tobacco Research). Vacco seized and distributed
their assets to two public institutions. Vacco's Democratic successor,
Attorney General Eliot Spiker, has proposed a "death penalty"
for corporations that cause serious harm. Contact: Attorney General's
* CHARTER REVOCATION activists led by the National Lawyers
Guild [NLG, www.nig.org] filed a 129-page legal petition asking
California's Attorney General to revoke the
charter of Union Oil Company of California (UNOCAL) for its
decades of global lawbreaking. Originally filed on September 1998,
by the NLG and 30 groups and individuals (including Earth Island
Institute), the petition was resubmitted on April 19, 1999, with
150 additional endorsements. A book on the case with information
about filing revocation appeals is available for S12 from the
Alliance far Democracy, 681 Main St, Suite 16, Waltham, MA 02451,
* THE NEW JERSEY CORPORATION CODE, which would rein-in illegitimate
corporate privileges, was authored by citizen activists in 1999.
The draft document is essential reading for anyone wishing to
amend their state's corporate codes. Contact: Ward Morehouse,
* MONTANA'S CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHT to a "clean and healthful
environment" was upheld in a landmark ruling on October 20,
1999. Montana's Supreme Court ruled that the State could ban activities
that have the potential to poison the environment. Contact: Tom
Frane, National Wildlife Federation Resource Center in Missoula,
(406) 721-6705, www.nwf.org · Dean Ritz, Defining Democracy
Workgroup, c/o the Jeannette Rankin Peace Center, (406) 543-3955,
* MUNICIPAL RESOLUTIONS. On April 25, 2000, Point Arena, California
passed a resolution denying the personhood status of corporations.
Contact: Jan Edwards, Redwood Coast Alliance for Democracy, (707)
882-1818, www. iiipublishing. com/alliance. htm
* THE OHIO COMMITTEE ON CORPORATIONS, LAW AND DEMOCRACY has
published a 52-page book, Citizens Over Corporations, which details
the history of corporate power and democratic movements in Ohio.
Similar pamphlets need to be written for every state in the Union.
Contact: Greg Coleridge, (330) 253-7151
Paul Cienfuegos is the co-founding director of Democracy Unlimited
at Humboldt County, CA and the co-author of the Arcata Advisory
initiative on Democracy and Corporations. Dean Ritz, Molly Morgan,
and Patrick Reinsbaraugh contributed to this article.
Copyright 2000 Paul Cienfuegos [(707) 8250740, firstname.lastname@example.org].
This essay has been edited for length. The full document is viewable
on the Democracy Unlimited website [www.monitor.net/democracyunlimited].