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,] - 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. org/democracy

* 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,

* Reclaim Democracy! (303) 402-0105, www. reclaimdemocracy. org

* 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. html#dra

* Nebraska - Nancy Thompson at Friends of the Constitution, (402) 494-911 7, 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 office,

* CHARTER REVOCATION activists led by the National Lawyers Guild [NLG,] 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, (212) 972-9877

* 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, · 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,]. This essay has been edited for length. The full document is viewable on the Democracy Unlimited website [].

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