Rachel's Democracy & Health News #894, February 15, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: Corporate campaigns are now a fixture of the activist landscape. Here Charlie Cray describes some of their strengths and weaknesses as a means for creating a stronger democracy.]

By Charlie Cray

Charlie Cray is the director of the Center for Corporate Policy in Washington, D.C.

I. Reasons for optimism -- what we are doing right

1. Corporate campaigns are being taken seriously by most corporations.

As an article from the Public Policy Intelligence Report[1] suggests, after more than a decade of corporate campaigns, corporations are trying to blunt the challenge by paying more attention to their own accountability by (a) measuring their own social performance, (b) adopting voluntary codes of conduct and certification regimes, and (c) creating an infrastructure for negotiation, not merely handing off the "crisis" to public relations experts.

2. Our campaigns are now international

Each year the Business Ethics Network gives Benny Awards for excellence in corporate campaigning. In 2006 the winners were

** Corporate Accountability International's water rights campaign, "Think Outside the Bottle"

** Pacific Environment's Sakhalin II campaign against Shell, Mitsui, Mitsubishi, and Gazprom.

** Amazon Watch's Clean Up Ecuador campaign

These campaigns all illustrate how we have learned to work globally, and they teach many lessons about how the best campaigns are run:

** We respect our partners -- "frontline" communities and foreign non- governmental organizations [NGOs];

** We frame our struggles around human and natural rights (campaigns for water as a basic right reached a new high mark with the recent Mexico City summit, providing an example for other essential services and industrial-sector campaigns),

** Our campaigns need to persist over long periods of time, digging into the crevices of Byzantine international financial arrangements, export credit agencies and, increasingly, private financial structures.

3. Toxics activists and anti-tobacco groups have created sophisticated international networks of NGOs and civil society groups (e.g. IPEN) and alliances with key public health professionals, elevating the voice of activist groups in the global south and institutionalizing our demands within global legal frameworks (POPs Treaty, Framework Agreement on Tobacco Control). These in turn have embedded key principles such as the Precautionary Principle -- into legitimate policy.

In fact Corporate campaigns have made a major contribution to the development of a body of treaties that begins to articulate the vision of the kind of world we want to live in. These treaties provide an answer to the imperious corporate design that has enshrined property rights and commercial values into treaties that support corporate interests, such as the WTO [World Trade Organization], and the institutions that reinforce those interests, including the IMF [International Monetary Fund], World Bank, and dozens of other export credit agencies and quasi-governmental institutions and banks that continue to prop up the "Washington Consensus."

4. Meanwhile, we have virtually stalled the WTO (Doha agreement), the main trans-national corporations' investor-rights power grab, forcing the U.S. Trade Representative and other proponents to inch forward with bi-partisan agreements. At the same time, global north- south alliances and discussions of alternative economic development are taking place within the International Forum on Globalization, the World Social Forum and other key activist arenas.

We have deepened our financial analysis beyond a few international financial institutions to a range of global, regional and national financial institutions (e.g. OPIC [Overseas Private Investment Corporation], other export credit agencies in Europe, Japan) as well as key private sources of destructive, unsustainable, and harmful investment (e.g. Rainforest Action Network's campaigns against Citi, others). Meanwhile, fledgeling networks such as the Tax Justice Network and the Derivatives Study Center have formed to deepen our understanding of global corporate financial questions.

5. The sophistication of corporate campaign work in the area of investor activism has grown, as witnessed by the increased number of shareholder resolutions, and creation of As You Sow and other groups.

The sophistication of our market strategies has also grown, particularly in the area of supply chain analysis. A number of groups have embarked upon the "mother of all market campaigns" -- Wal-Mart, a major challenge that has already resulted in early-stage concessions. (For example, see Wakeup Wal-Mart.)

We have also witnessed the explosive growth of campaign activism in specific sectors, including public relations (PR Watch), pharmaceuticals, media reform (2,000 activists came to the second national media reform conference in St. Louis in 2005 sponsored by Free Press, and war profiteering, efforts that are particularly crucial in the U.S.

6. Meanwhile, the grassroots populist wing of the movement to challenge corporate power, as small as it may be, has continued to grow, with new experiments in community-level organizing around fundamental rights beginning to take hold in places like Pennsylvania (CELDF) and Humboldt County, CA (www.votelocalcontrol.org). Groups like POCLAD and the education provided by the Democracy Schools and groups like Reclaim Democracy, the New Rules Project (ILSR) and CELDF continue to plant the seeds of populism in communities across the U.S.

Other progressive groups have made significant gains at the state level, helping frame questions of economic justice (Living Wage - ACORN) and public funding of elections (Public Campaign, Fair Vote).

II. The Basis for Pessimism -- What is Missing and What We Might Do About It

1. Most of our campaigns still operate in isolation. We rarely tie the strategy to broader challenges to corporate power, settling at best for concessions from single companies that might eventually lead to standards across an entire industrial sector. Often these are quite significant, but they rarely build bridges to the next step, galvanize longer-term activist engagement among masses of people, etc.

The NGO wing of the corporate campaign movement, for example, largely grew out of the environmental movement, and still has few ties to labor, few ties to the leading environmental justice groups (who have much to teach about holistic thinking and organizing), the peace movement (e.g. it's quite surprising that there are so few environmental groups working on the link between war and oil, security, etc.), the voting rights and democracy movement, and the media reform movement.

There are good examples, however, of "bridging campaigns" out there - such as the "Separation of Oil and State" campaign (Oil Change) and the Center for Political Accountability's work to force companies to disclose their political contributions through aggressive shareholder activism.

2. We are still not very nimble in choosing our corporate targets outside of the specific sectors we are mainly focused on, nor do we seem to be willing to risk using our expertise in waging corporate campaigns to build broader alliances with these other movements -- e.g. where's the campaign against Diebold? After all, we learned a lot of this stuff from Labor. (On the other hand, during the 2004 presidential campaign, the media reform movement sort of stumbled into an informal campaign against Sinclair Broadcast Group that was waged pretty well.)

We don't often discuss how to organize a "movement of movements" around common concerns among all these allies -- especially around the question of democracy.

3. We're not always adept at challenging fundamental corporate power, including the basic right to do business -- in ways the public understands. The right to vote. The right to water.

We are not always willing to push our victories into legislation, or willing to risk looking foolish by waging campaigns that set "impossible" goals that shift the debate by educating a broader public about much deeper notions of democracy or stronger measures of corporate accountability -- the way the Unocal campaigners did when they filed for the company's charter revocation (few took the next step of pushing for related legislation, especially when liberal democrats in the California state assembly would not support it).

4. This is a good reminder of something else we need to do -- educate funders to keep the eye on the long-term goal. The point is not to get liberal Democrats elected, but to build a movement that will dictate terms to both parties, or even build its own party if it has to, either through tools like fusion balloting or electoral work in third parties. Liberal foundations outspend conservative foundations by 10 to 1, but many of them act like a "drag anchor" on the movement. On the other side, it's clear from the history of right-wing foundations, starting with the Chamber of Commerce's strategy outline by Justice Lewis Powell, that many right-wing foundations are willing to fight a "permanent revolution" on behalf of corporations, grabbing power through deep analysis of the institutions of power in government and society.[2]

5. We seem to have given up on Washington, settling for market strategies instead. By doing so we reinforce people's understanding of themselves as consumers rather than citizens. We have allowed the right wing to perpetuate a "vicious cycle" that instructs Americans to be cynical about their government on the one hand, while they use the instruments of government to pick their pockets and undermine their rights. And after a major scandal like Abramoff, etc. what happens? It only confirms the story that you can't trust government. But we don't see Grover Norquist or the Competitive Enterprise Institute or the Washington Legal Foundation closing up shop. Instead, they attack our groups (Rainforest Action Network) using strategies very similar to ones that our movement once espoused, but has long since forgotten because we haven't built much institutional memory.[3]

Our ability to advocate effectively for new policies has atrophied as a result. For example, we don't seem to be interested in paying attention to debates that might directly affect our ability to campaign, including SEC proposed regulations requiring mutual fund voting disclosure or shareholder rights to nominate their own candidates to the board. Not that these are the most important reforms, but they clearly would strengthen the power of shareholder action strategies. Labor unions devote some resources to following these issues (as well as related questions like CEO pay and offshore re-incorporation) and have found them to be a key part of a dynamic campaign.

6. We have a very poor understanding of the importance of the Courts. We don't push proactive framing of the law to reflect populist campaigns. We could learn something from the Civil Rights Movement in this regard.[4] Instead we have seen the erosion of our ability to hold corporations accountable through civil lawsuits (tort reform), long- term corporate assaults on local zoning and environmental/conservation protections (the so-called "Takings Project"), etc.[5]

We have defended the Alien Tort Claims Act from attack, but we are still seeing its slow erosion.

While corporations are using SLAPPs and food disparagement laws to attack our speech rights, where are we in challenging the notion that Money = Speech -- a key assumption (created by Buckley v. Valeo) that allows corporations to dominate political processes?

We have no institutional presence in law schools or business schools, whereas the other side has a juggernaut known as the Federalist Society, not to mention judicial "education" seminars at Hilton Head, the Pacific Legal Foundation, Washington Legal Foundation, and well over a dozen other groups that "campaign" for corporations through the courts.[6]

We need to learn from movements in other countries (e.g. through global campaign meetings like the ones organized by labor unions).

In the short-term we need to use tactics that take advantage of the fundamental design of corporations, including working with some sectors to challenge others, such as health care.

And we need to develop strategies leading to reinvigorated challenges to corporate size and reach, not trying to play the technocratic antitrust laws (except when it's tactically necessary), but by framing our demands around simple, bold policies that transcend single industrial sectors, such as the need to prevent related businesses from joining to form large market-controlling conglomerates:


Analyst/commercial banking Broadcast/print/other media

Media/other corporations

Meat packers/cattle ranchers

Wal-Mart/Banking, etc.

We need to identify key challenges that provide important opportunities for our movement -- esp. global warming, CEO pay (flash point).

We need to take on new institutions, such as the New York Stock Exchange, putting demands on them that force them into our frame.

The right has built a structure that is quite logical in terms of values. They talk about "family values" not because it's simply a good "frame" for the conservative agenda, but because it fits with the constructions of institutions that sustain their agenda for the long- run -- the takeover of school boards (which allowed them to develop a farm team of candidates for higher office) and churches.

How will we build our base?

I'm not sure, but I do think that one thing we want to push for is simply "democratic control of corporations."

The strategies for doing so are both internal (e.g. by forcing companies to put CEO pay up for a vote, as they do in England) and external (when "We the People" take back our own government, we will be more able to make decisions about the kind of economy we want, including those that force or incentivize businesses to live within ecological realities)

It not only means joining with voting rights and democracy activists to drive corporations altogether out of politics, but joining labor in the struggle to fight privatization and protect the commons, and joining consumers in the struggle for the right to essential services, plus joining with media activists in the struggle to take our airwaves back.

Although some of us may see the internal game as quixotic, we can understand its value at least as a way of engaging the people who work within corporations (what did Gandhi say about how to engage your opponents?) and exposing the inherently anti-democratic nature of corporations (with their fallacious assertions of "shareholder democracy" and other softer reformist approaches that will only obstruct our way as we strive forward in the struggle for real democracy if we let them).

It was the great ecologist Barry Commoner who taught us that the first rule of ecology is that "everything is connected to everything else." I think that's a good rule for strategic campaigners, too.

Another environmentalist, Emerson, once said that a "foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of petty minds." That would be us if we see ourselves simply as "market strategists" or even "corporate campaigners" or "corporate reformers."

Democracy is a much bigger vision. And one that is quite ecological. Thus, by looking at our struggle with this kind of ecological sensibility (without receding into nouvelle vague fantasies) we will continue to be able to get through whatever dark moments we are certain to face with the kind of spirit and perspective that will allow us as activists to continue to love the work we do.

Finally, one question:

Q. What was the First Corporate Campaign-related action in American history?

A. The Boston Tea Party -- an act of civil disobedience against the British East India Company.

Corporate campaigners are true patriots, the same kind that hundreds of years ago fought for democratic self-determination against their own day's illegitimate and massive corporations.


[1] Bart Mongoven, "Corporate Campaigns Find a Peak," Public Policy Intelligence Report, September 27, 2006.

[2] The Powell Memorandum is available at: http://reclaimdem ocracy.org/corporate_accountability/powell_memo_lewis.html. Related analysis is here: http://www.prospect.org/web/printfriend ly- view.ww?id=9606 as well as in National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, "Axis of Ideology," March 2004. Executive summary available at: http://www.ncrp.org/PDF/AxisofIdeology-ExecutiveS ummary.pdf

[3] Oliver Houck, 1984 Yale Law Review Article "With Charity for All" -- which argues that corporate front groups should have their tax- exempt status revoked because they violate IRS rules on non- profits.

[4] See Richard Kluger, Simple Justice.

[5] Oliver Houck, cited above.

[6] See http://www.corporatepolicy.org/issues/legalfoundations.htm