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Big Ideas on Corporate Accountability and Global Sustainability

By Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman



Sometimes, it is important to think big.

In an era where corporations trample across the globe with minimal restraint, and citizen movements around the world are on their heels, it is natural -- and necessary -- for those trying to check corporate power to think defensively and, when they do reflect on affirmative proposals, incrementally.

But it is important not to be overly constrained by the existing balance of forces. If they are to engage, energize and mobilize large numbers of people, citizen movements need to be animated by positive visions, as well. And while there is a role for utopian outlines in suggesting what society could be, even more important are concrete medium-term proposals that suggest attainable aspirations and purposeful direction.

One would not ordinarily look to the U.S. Congress for such ideas, but two members of the U.S. House of Representatives have stepped forward to offer sweeping proposals to regulate U.S.-based multinational corporations' global operations and to reorient the global economy to the pursuit of sustainable development, not corporate greed.

Representative Cynthia McKinney, D-Georgia, has introduced the Corporate Code of Conduct Act (H.R. 4596) and Representative Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, has introduced the Global Sustainable Development Resolution (H.Res 479). (You can find the bills at

"It is time we reclaim the global economy for the people who make it work," insists McKinney, "and stop pandering to corporate interests who build their empires on the backs of the innocent."

"Corporate globalization is forcing men and women around the world to run a destructive race to the bottom -- a competition in which workers, communities and entire countries are forced to cut wages, environmental protections, and social programs to attract footloose capital," says Sanders.

To address these ills, McKinney's bill would require all U.S.-based corporations with more than 20 employees abroad to enact a code of conduct. Significantly, the code also would apply to the companies' subsidiaries, subcontractors, affiliates, joint ventures, partners, or licensees -- meaning companies like Nike would not be able to disdain responsibility for the practices of their subcontractors.

The code would establish a floor for corporate behavior, requiring companies in their overseas operations to:

pay a living wage and ban specific practices, such as mandatory overtime for workers under 18, pregnancy testing and retaliation against whistleblowers;

respect identified international labor standards (including the right to organize, minimum wage guarantees and protections for occupational safety and health);

adhere to both international environmental standards and U.S. federal environmental laws and regulations;

provide public documentation of where they are doing business directly or through subsidiaries or contractors, and extensive information on employment and environmental practices.

The bill would enforce the code of conduct through two mechanisms. First, the U.S. government would give preference to complying corporations in contracts and in export assistance. The bill would include certification and reporting requirements for companies, and would also establish an investigative process, open to citizen initiation, to determine compliance. Second, victims of violations of the bill -- including non-U.S. citizens -- would be empowered to sue U.S. companies in U.S. courts.

The Sanders resolution covers more territory than the McKinney bill. It too includes a corporate code of conduct, to be negotiated internationally, that contains many of the principles included in the McKinney bill. But the heart of the Sanders resolution addresses the institutions regulating international commerce.

One of the key mechanisms for developing its proposals is the creation of U.S. and United Nations Commissions on the Global Economy. The U.S. commission would hold town meetings and open hearings around the country to investigate the effect of globalization on the workers, industry and environment of the United States. The UN panel would both encourage other nations to hold their own series of town meetings and would initiate a global North-South dialogue aiming for negotiation of an international agreement for global sustainable development.

The provisions that the Sanders resolution seeks to have enacted through global negotiation or U.S. mandate include:

a tax on international currency transactions, designed to stem financial volatility;

creation of a global investment fund, to heighten demand and meet pressing needs in developing countries;

cancellation of the debts of the poorest countries, with no structural adjustment conditions (the package of Contract with America-style deregulatiory conditions) attached;

a remaking of the World Bank, so that it ends support for destructive megaprojects and instead supports development of poor countries' renewable energy capacity and food security;

a shrinking of the International Monetary Fund; and

trade agreements that "remove labor and environmental rights and conditions and social protections as factors of competition, such as by international agreements to avoid competitive cuts in the social safety nets" and guarantee "the right of nations and localities to plan for local economic development objectives such as raising employment levels, enhancing employment opportunities for targeted populations, raising wage levels in specific industries, dignified work and healthy communities."

Neither the McKinney bill nor the Sanders resolution will be enacted any time soon. "This Congress is too beholden to corporate money to challenge its corporate masters," explains Sanders.

Only stronger grassroots movements offer the prospect of changing Congress's primary allegiance. The importance of initiatives like McKinney's and Sanders' is that, by offering concrete proposals of steps to a better future, they can help generate and develop those movements.


Corporations: Different Than You and Me

By Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman


Corporations are fundamentally different than you and me.

That's a simple truth that Big Business leaders desperately hope the public will not perceive.

It helps companies immeasurably that the law in the United States and in many other countries confers upon them the same rights as human beings.

In the United States, this personhood treatment, established most importantly in a throwaway line in an 1886 Supreme Court decision, protects the corporate right to advertise (including the tobacco companies' right to market their deadly wares), corporations' ability to contribute monetarily to political campaigns, and interferes with regulators' facility inspection rights (via corporate rights against unreasonable search and seizure).

But even more important than the legal protections gained by faux personhood status are the political, social and cultural benefits.

Companies aggressively portray themselves as part of the community (every community), a friendly neighbor. If they succeed in that effort at self-characterization, they know what follows: a dramatically diminished likelihood of external constraints on their operations. If a corporation is part of the community, then it is entitled to the same freedoms available to others, and the same presumption of non-interference that society appropriately affords real people.

Especially because corporations work so aggressively and intentionally to obscure the point, it is crucial to draw attention to the corporation as an institution with unique powers, motivations and attributes, and to point to the basic differences between human beings and the socially constituted and authorized institutions called corporations.

Here are 10 differences between corporations and real people:

1. Corporations have perpetual life.

2. Corporations can be in two or more places at the same time.

3. Corporations cannot be jailed.

4. Corporations have no conscience or sense of shame.

5. Corporations have no sense of altruism, nor willingness to adjust their behavior to protect future generations.

6. Corporations pursue a single-minded goal, profit, and are typically legally prohibited from seeking other ends.

7. There are no limits, natural or otherwise, to corporations' potential size.

8. Because of their political power, they are able to define or at very least substantially affect, the civil and criminal regulations that define the boundaries of permissible behavior. Virtually no individual criminal has such abilities. 9. Corporations can combine with each other, into bigger and more powerful entities.

10. Corporations can divide themselves, shedding subsidiaries or affiliates that are controversial, have brought them negative publicity or pose liability threats.

These unique attributes give corporations extraordinary power, and makes the challenge of checking their power all the more difficult. The institutions are much more powerful than individuals, which makes all the more frightening their single-minded profit maximizing efforts.

Corporations have no conscience, or has been famously said, no soul. As a result, they exercise little self-restraint. Exacerbating the problem, because they have no conscience, many of the sanctions we impose on individuals - not just imprisonment, but the more important social norms of shame and community disapproval - have limited relevance to or impact on corporations.

The fact that corporations are not like us, their very unique characteristics, makes crucially important the development of an array of controls on corporations. These include: precise limits on corporate behaviors (such as actively enforced environmental, consumer, worker safety regulations); limits on corporate size and power (through vigorous antitrust and pro-competition policy, including limits on the scope of intellectual property protections); restrictions and prohibitions on corporate political activity (including through comprehensive campaign finance reform); carefully tailored civil and criminal sanctions responsive to the particular traits of corporations including denying wrongdoing companies the ability to bid for government contracts; equity fines - fines paid in stock, not dollars; creative probation, with a court-appointed ombudsman given authority to order specific changes in corporate activities; and restrictions on corporations' ability to close or move facilities.

There is also the permanent challenge of building countervailing centers of people power to balance concentrated corporate power: unions above all, plus consumer, environmental, indigenous rights and other civic groups, organized in conventional and novel formations.

And there is the imperative of directly confronting the corporate claim to personhood and community neighbor status - both in the law and in the broader culture.

This is the beginning of a sketch of an ambitious agenda, but there is no alternative, if democracy is to be rescued from the corporate hijackers who masquerade as everyday citizens.  

Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter. Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor. Mokhiber and Weissman are co-authors of Corporate Predators: The Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1999, - © Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman

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Emanzipation Humanum, version 03. 2001, criticism, suggestions as to form and content, dialogue, translation into other languages are all desired