Twenty years ago today, on October 20, 1996, twenty-five Ohioans came together at the Procter House (former summer estate of William Procter of Procter and Gamble Corporation fame) between Columbus and Cincinnati to participate in a workshop titled “Rethinking the Corporation, Rethinking Democracy.” Sponsored by the Program on Corporations, Law & Democracy (POCLAD) and led by POCLAD co-founder Richard Grossman and corporate anthropologist Jane Anne Morris, the workshop was one of scores organized over several years all over the country by the group.
The environmental, labor, peace, and justice activists in Ohio were drawn to the gathering because each was struggling against or concerned about repeated corporate assaults upon their communities in particular, and upon democracy in general. I was fortunate enough to be one of those participants representing the NE Ohio AFSC, thanks to an invitation from former Toledo City Councilperson Mike Ferner.
We learned at the retreat that since revolutionary days people were well aware that property owners could use the corporate form, equipped with special privileges to operate as private governments, causing sustained harms to people, places, liberty and democracy. So people at the state level used their constitution, corporate charters and state corporation codes to define corporations as subordinate, and to restrain legislators from favoring property over people.
But as land, railroad, banking, insurance and other corporations began to acquire wealth, they crafted a different agenda. Investing some of their huge profits from the Civil War, they lobbied for legal doctrines and laws that privileged private over public interests, and favored property rights over human rights. As they increased their influence over local, state, and federal governments, they kept rewriting state constitutions and corporation laws shaping the culture to legitimize corporate dominance.
By the end of the World War II, giant corporations routinely called upon our governments to deny people’s rights — for example, by declaring that workers have no free speech or assembly rights on corporate property, or that regulated industrial corporate poisons are legalized industrial corporate poisons.
At the same time, people’s protests and political activism were increasingly channeled into administrative and regulatory agencies such as the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, the National Labor Relations Board, the Environmental Protection Agency, and scores more. In fact, corporations helped design many of these agencies, starting with the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1887, so that the most which We the People can accomplish via such agencies is to get corporate property owners to cause a little less harm.
Stirred by these presentations about corporate histories and peoples’ struggles for democracy, we discussed at the Proctor House our own organizing experiences. We began to grapple with the idea that our efforts at opposing corporate violations of laws and harms one at a time, over and over again, had been tiring, erratic, and not particularly effective.
It struck us that we had a lot to learn about and from corporate history. Among other things, while we were educating on single issues, researching areas of science and technology, and organizing mostly around local, state and federal regulatory agencies, corporate officials were focusing in constitutional arenas. There, they lobbied for the property and civil rights of human persons.
While we were writing drafts of health, environmental, consumer and labor laws that would curb corporate behaviors, corporate attorneys were writing state corporation codes and amending state constitutions to define giant business corporations as private — essentially beyond the authority of We the People.
While we were bringing our causes to regulatory agencies (having been taught that state and federal regulators were our allies), corporations were too often using these same regulatory laws and agencies as barriers to justice.
And while we were considering creative ways to boycott corporate sweatshops; stop the next corporate toxic/radioactive factory/dump; persuade corporate executives to sign voluntary codes of conduct and act responsibly; and prevent factory closings or employee layoffs…corporate agents were getting state and federal courts to deny people basic constitutional rights while expanding their own rights.
The weekend was one of those “ah ha” moments for me that we all have at some point(s) in our lives if we’re lucky when understanding of the world takes a large leap rather than a small step forward. The information presented, discussed and analyzed was nothing that we had been exposed to in our schools, media, religious organizations, or even activist groups.
We were challenged just before departing to research our own legal, political and people’s history of corporate power and democracy movements in Ohio – since it was at the state level where most corporations were licensed or chartered with those charters considered democratic tools to define corporate actions.
The energy and commitment from the gathering led to the formation of the Ohio Committee on Corporations, Law & Democracy , which AFSC helped coordinate, and the subsequent publication of the booklet Citizens over Corporations: A Brief History of Democracy in Ohio and Challenges to Freedom in the Future, the documentary CorpOrNation: the Story of Citizens and Corporation in Ohio, articles, debates, talks, workshops, forums, and testimony before the Ohio General Assembly against several proposed bills that would expand corporate power — including watering down the state corporate code to be more corporate-friendly.
All these activities occurred years before the Citizens United vs FEC U.S. Supreme Court decision of 2010. For many, Citizens United was an “ah ha” moment in which corporate constitutional rights (as well as the constitutional doctrine of money being defined as free speech) was first realized. It’s true Citizens United granted inalienable constitutional rights – specifically the right to contribute or invest in elections – to corporations as well as to individuals. Those rights, however, were not brand new rights, only expanded rights anointed to corporations and wealthy individuals. In the case of corporations, those never-intended original rights went back more than 100 years, as we learned at our retreat.
Twenty years later, corporations have even greater constitutional rights and authority than ever due to the Citizens United v FEC, Burwell v Hobby Lobby (granting corporations religious rights), McCutcheon v FEC (permitting even greater sums of money from wealthy individuals to be donated/invested in politics) and other High Court decisions. Money continues to be defined constitutionally as free speech, as it has been since 1976.
Corporate dominance has increased in virtually every sector of our lives, including elections, mass media, education, health care, criminal justice, food, energy, environment and (you fill in the blank here). It profoundly threatens our right as people to decide what takes place in our neighborhoods, communities, nation, world and natural world.
Yet much of activism remains channeled largely, if not solely, into elections, regulatory agencies, or lobbying for laws addressing one single harm/issue/problem/concern. Meanwhile, corporate agents continue to focus on fundamental rule changes that fundamentally address and lock in power and rights.
The “ah ha” moments of corporate constitutional rights and its direct assault on self-governance are growing more numerous. The Move to Amend campaign and its quest to pass a We the People Constitutional Amendment abolishing all never-intended inalienable constitutional rights (and not just reverse Citizens United) and money defined as free speech is making more sense to more people in more communities. The growing “ah-ha” moments are coalescing into a movement involving people in hundreds of communities taking a stand.
It’s part of the arc of education and organizing that over the last 20 years the “Rethink” workshops helped launch and the Move to Amend campaign for a constitutional amendment will, hopefully, one day complete.