POCLAD: Corporations erode communities
FRISCO ” Corporations have usurped citizens’ rights, nibbled away at the fabric of community and brought people into positions of subordination. And the battle to fight back will not be easy.
Such was the word from Virginia Rasmussen, co-founder of Program on Corporations, Law and Democracy (POCLAD), which strives to educate citizens about their rights and how laws have changed to the benefit of major companies. She spoke at a forum at the Summit County Community and Senior Center last week.
“I’m reminded of a dog that’s on a tether tied to a tree,” she said. “A fox comes along and runs circles around the dog, and the dog chases him, his tether gets shorter and shorter, and pretty soon, he’s all tied up and the fox goes in and eats his food.
“We the people, who are seeking a healthy environment, good health, racial justice, workers’ rights, democracy, have someone running us around in circles, tying us up and eating our lunch.”
The problem, she said, started with people who created companies that became large and successful. The leaders of those companies were then able to craft and adopt legislation, notably via the Interstate Commerce Commission, established by Congress in 1887. That gave railroad magnates – the first corporate giants – the power to dictate how they would run their business.
At the turn of the 20th century, entrepreneurs were perceived as unique, Rasmussen said. They brought new ideas to society, bolstered the economy and jump-started industry. Congress was not about to stand in their way.
Since then, Rasmussen said, they have been able to bribe elected officials and effect change in commerce laws, notably by stating that they have a right to do business and that those who stand in the way are impeding commerce – a violation of the Commerce Act.
“They knew people would be upset if they didn’t jump in and solve the problem,” she said. “We’ve been living with regulations ever since. Regulatory law is corporate law promulgated by corporate leaders.”
Corporations became immune by personalizing the company and convincing people they deserved rights, Rasmussen said. They didn’t want to violate people, so they crafted regulations and laws, Rasmussen said. That way, violators merely broke a law and didn’t hurt people.
“It enables, empowers and protects corporations,” she said. “And it keeps us exhausted.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, citizens decided to take charge.
Grassroots organizations reacted to what they saw as business run amok, particularly in regards to the environment. In those decades, Congress passed the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and the Federal Land Policy Management Act. It also created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the National Resources Defense Council, among others, to protect the environment and society against the perceived ravages of big business.
All that did, however, was outline minimum standards by which corporations had to abide to do business, Rasmussen said.
Conducting business, she continued, has included adopting laws that, against citizens’ will, allow corporations to dump toxic sludge on farm lands, grow genetically engineered crops, bring huge hog farms to small farming towns and pay little taxes.
“Those regulations validate harm to communities,” Rasmussen said. “Pollution regulations say ‘so much pollution is allowed,’ ‘so much emissions are allowed.’ If you can prove that more than that has been put out, fine. Go after them. They’ve legalized harm and told citizens to go and catch them if you can.”
Suddenly – and increasingly so – corporations have managed to use the legal system to interpret the U.S. Constitution to give them the rights the Constitution says are in the domain of citizens. Included is the right to free speech, which corporations have been able to claim through litigation fighting demands to label dairy products if bovine growth hormone had been given to dairy cows. The dairy industry argued that would give away trade secrets and adversely affect their ability to conduct business.
“Most people think the law is on our side and if you use it smartly, energetically, it’ll serve us right,” Rasmussen said. “The law is used by those in power to amass more power.”
Some communities have been fighting back, although their success rates vary.
Citizens in a Pennsylvania township voted to ban corporate hog farming after watching generations of local hog farmers lose their land, benefits, pay and heritage. Citizens in another Pennsylvania town passed a law to prevent corporations from dumping sludge in their jurisdiction. The corporation sued, saying the town violated a variety of its civil and constitutional rights.
In Massachusetts, citizens passed a law banning billboards 1,000 feet from schools. The courts ruled it unconstitutional, saying it deprived the corporation of its “corporate rights” and its “right to speak where the corporation wanted to speak,” Rasmussen said.
Similar cases are under way in the Midwest and California.
Locally, it would be easy for Frisco citizens to convince the town council to deny a proposed strip-mall development behind Wal-Mart. In that case, citizens have a lot of power. But the town could be hard-pressed to actually pull off the will of the people against a large corporation.
The only way to prevent litigious corporations from starting business in a state is to revoke its corporate charter, although such an initiative in Colorado was deemed unconstitutional under the Commerce Act. Towns can also pass laws to ban corporate activities – and their constitutional rights within that jurisdiction.
“Corporations say communities have no rights to do what they’re doing,” Rasmussen said. “But they’re under way, and they’re not going to go away. Law evolves by challenging existing law.
“We need to take back citizens’ rights and the organizations we created,” she continued. “Until we do that, we’ll remain tethered.”
Jane Stebbins can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 228, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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