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the OTHER paper
Box 11376
Eugene, OR 97440
May, 1995

Take back the might

by Wanda Ballentine

Why aren't lawyers helping us to regain the rights and
powers that have been steadily transferred to corporations?

This question is asked annually at the Environmental Law Conference by Richard Grossman, co-director of the Legal Analysis and Action Project on Corporations, and author of a pamphlet titled Taking Care of Business: Citizenship and the Charter of Incorporation.

          Probably the most important question asked, it has yet to be answered. But the fact that Grossman did not attend the conference this year did not deter him from asking it again. He sent a 14-page letter to keynote speaker, David Brower, for distribution.

          "The largest 100 corporations have incomes greater than half the member countries of the U.N.," Grossman writes. "70% of all international trade is directed by 500 corporations. Global corporations enter and leave communities at will, shaping the future of people, thought, ecosystems, and the Earth. . . Leaders of these fictions exercise what amounts to sovereign control over vast lands, over education and information, over jobs and income, over our governments."

          The power of corporations arose from drastic alterations in our original incorporation laws, which law students are simply trained to accept, rather than challenge.

(Originally)" corporations were obligated "to obey all laws, to serve the common good, and to cause no harm."

          Calling regulatory and administrative laws a stacked deck -- the National Environmental Policy Act does not mention corporations or require anything of them; the Taft-Hartley Act was written by corporate lawyers -- Grossman asserts that our time, energy and resources are funneled into these arenas where even if we "win," we don't win much. We get strategies that legalize the poisoning of the air and water, legalize clearcutting, set compensation amounts for corporate harms, and concentrate power in the hands of appointed regulators and administrators insulated from our reach. Strategies are developed to aid corporations reap greater profits as a bribe to act more responsibly, while the privileges and immunities corporations have usurped are left unchallenged.

          Grossman quotes a letter from battle-weary activists to the nation's 15 leading environmental groups:

          "We believe that it is too late to counter corporate power environmental law-by-environmental law, regulatory struggle-by-struggle. We don't have sufficient time or resources to organize chemical-by-chemical, forest-by-forest, river-by-river, permit-by-permit, technology-by-technology, product-by-product, corporate disaster by corporate disaster.

          "But if we curb or cut off corporate power at its source, all our work will become easier."

          In Taking Care of Business, Grossman quotes former Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter: "the history of constitutional law is the history of the impact of the modern corporation upon the American scene."

          Early citizens, fresh from European oppression, were extremely leery of corporations; charters were granted carefully with many restrictions and requirements for periodic review. Corporations were obligated "to obey all laws, to serve the common good, and to cause no harm." States could -- and did -- revoke charters. Prior to 1870, the corporation was a subordinate institution and the use of natural resources, the realm of public decisions.

"The largest 100 corporations have incomes greater than half the member countries of the U.N. 70% of all international trade is directed by 500 corporations."

          Then corporations began a campaign to take control. Citizen groups fought a losing battle as wealthy corporations enlisted the power of the courts to reinterpret the laws. The courts ruled that huge, wealthy corporations [could] compete on equal terms with neighborhood businesses and individuals; they were granted the status of personhood, but with more legal rights than people. The "common good" became corporate use of humans and the earth for maximum production and profit.

          Traditionally, the burden of damage had been on the business causing the harm; lack of intent was not an acceptable excuse, nor would "good works" get them off the hook. The penalty was not a slap on the wrist or a fine; it was dissolution. This tradition has been totally reversed.

          Today corporate owners claim "legal authority over what to make and how to make it, to move money and mountains, to influence elections and bend governments to their will. They insist that once formed, they may operate forever." They enjoy limited liability and freedom from community or worker interference with business judgments, corporate contracts, rate of return on investment. Such decisions are how beyond the reach of democracy, as was exemplified locally in the negotiations between Sony and the City of Springfield to open a Sony plant. Sony insisted the negotiations be secret, and that they would cease if word got out to the public. $12 million in subsidies were granted with no input from the taxpayers.

          So, Grossman challenged budding lawyers again: "Can we take away the designation that corporations are "persons" under law, and end corporate "free speech?" Can we stop corporations from interfering in public policy debate and discussion? Can we revoke the charters of multinational corporations? Can we prohibit them from owning other corporations? Can we put corporate officials responsible for murder, mayhem and subversion in jail?" Can we take back our power?

Richard Grossman may be contacted at
211.5 Bradford St
Provincetown, MA 02657

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