Once upon a time kings were the sovereigns; they were all-powerful. They had the power to charter corporations whereby capital could be consolidated and directed to benefit both the King and those who were granted corporate privileges. In 1628 King Charles I chartered the Massachusetts Bay Company to exploit the resources of the New World. At one point, the King sent representatives to assess whether the Company was abiding by the terms of its charter, and asked to review the Company’s books. When the company resisted, the Crown responded, “The King did not grant away his sovereignty over you when he made you a corporation.”
This story is not only a refresher on the meaning of “sovereignty,” it also suggests that the people have the legitimacy to reassert their control over corporations. Workshop participants in Santa Rosa, CA discussed ways people are currently doing this at the local government level.
Challenging Corporate Constitutional Rights at the Local Government Level
Corporations are not mentioned in the US Constitution. The founders of our nation recognized the risks associated with the potential accumulation of power by corporations. In an effort to contain this power, only states were allowed to charter corporations, the rationale being that states are closer to the people than the federal government.
Before the Civil War, obtaining a corporate charter was considered a privilege. However, over time, state-created corporations gradually amassed “rights” under the US Constitution, protected by the federal government. These rights do not appear in the US Constitution, but instead were granted to corporations by the US Supreme Court.
These “rights” include recognition of corporations as a person with access to due process and equal protection under the 14th Amendment, originally adopted to recognize African Americans as “persons.” As “persons,” telecommunications corporations, seeking to locate transmission towers, have used the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s protections from discrimination to force their way into communities. Corporations have also used protection from discrimination to force communities to accept big box retail stores that undermine their local economy. Corporations have gained 4th Amendment protection from searches thereby enabling them to hide records and evade meaningful environmental and worker safety inspections. Corporations have gained various “free speech” rights under the 1st Amendment including the recognition of corporate money, used in election and ballot initiative campaigns, as a form of protected political speech. The right “not to speak” was expanded for corporations by the Supreme Court in 1996 when it overturned a Vermont law requiring the labeling of all products containing bovine growth hormone (International Dairy Foods Association vs Amestoy). (Mayer, 1990) ( WILPF Timeline) (Grossman, et, al. 2003).
Volunteers of General Strike USA.com don’t classify themselves with a label, but are engaged in what could be called “the people’s sovereignty movement.” They challenge the legitimacy of the US Supreme Court, or any other arm of government, “to bestow upon corporations the immense governing authority” implicit in the conferral of constitutional rights. They base this challenge on a solid founding principle; no governing entity may grant away the people’s right to a functional republican form of government. They contend that excessive corporate power has undermined this basic right of the people. (POCLAD, 2003) (See Also, Grossman, et, al, 2003).
Rather than try to change Supreme Court decisions, the people’s sovereignty movement is building popular support for eliminating corporate constitutional rights; they are urging their fellow citizens to effectively say, “We hold ultimate authority, and despite what the Supreme Court says, we did not grant away our sovereignty over you when we made you a corporation.” So, what concrete steps does one take to make this tangible?
Some examples from other venues provide guidance. Perhaps you have heard about cities, and even the State of Hawaii, passing resolutions that reject the legitimacy of the USA PATRIOT Act. At least one city, Arcata, CA, passed a binding ordinance refusing compliance with elements of the Act. Local jurisdictions across the country also rejected the legitimacy of the Iraq war by passing resolutions expressing their opposition.