Corporations

Arise, Ye Prisoners of Globalization

At least twice a week for the past year, I’ve listened to one song by the great country-rock renegade, Steve Earle. The song is on his album El Corazon, and it’s called "Christmas in Washington." It was written on the eve of the second Clinton inaugural. As the singer watched the news of Democrats preparing "for four more years of things not getting worse," he experienced a cry of the heart that became the chorus of the song. "Come back Woody Guthrie, come back to us now. Tear your eyes from paradise and rise again somehow."

The second verse of the song recounts a younger Earle’s folkie devotion to Guthrie. In the third verse he returns to the present scene, singing, "The fox is in the henhouse now, the cow’s out in the corn. The unions have been busted, their proud red banners torn." Then the chorus returns, but this time it goes, "Come back Emma Goldman. Rise up old Joe Hill. The barricades are going up, and they cannot break our will." Every time I’ve heard that chorus I’ve experienced a familiar catch in the throat. It evokes the spirit and flesh of the old, wild America of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A place where democracy was still considered an unfinished business.

In those days, a technological revolution had created great concentrations of private wealth and power called "corporations." Those entities impoverished millions of formerly self-sufficient farmers and artisans and ran roughshod over the lives of workers, families, and communities. In those days, workers and farmers fought those new economic powers, in the streets, and by any means necessary. When I heard Earle summon up those saints of struggle, I felt that old dream of a better world stirring in my chest again. Then that line about the barricades would always stop me cold. It seemed like a thin, false hope, driven more by nostalgia and the need for a rhyme, than by any assessment of political reality.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 2000
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Under the Heel of Business

1997 I was part of a group of U.S. women traveling in the mountains of Haiti to meet with women from the village of Medor. We were exploring the establishment of partnerships between U.S. sponsors and Haitian women interested in starting small businesses. Each woman spoke of selling salt, oil, thread, flour, or other commodities that were part of daily life.

When asked why they wanted to start a small business, a young Haitian woman gave an answer I will never forget. "I want to start this small business so I can feed my small children a meal each day," she said. In the stunned silence, we asked what she does now. "Now I feed my children a meal two or three times a week. The rest of the time they chew sugar cane so they will not feel hungry." Any attempt to understand "business ethics" must be anchored in this woman’s reality.

In the years since the end of World War II, the world has seen the local economies of individual nations transformed into an increasingly interwoven fabric: global finance and a global economy. We read about corporate mergers, takeovers, buy-outs, and conglomerates. Success is measured by the billions of dollars "earned" by a corporation and its shareholders, or by a country’s gross national product, or by the inflation rate. All of this affects the complex relationships between companies and the countries in which they operate.

Yet rarely do we read about the effects of the globalization of the economy on individual countries as a whole, or on groups of people within a country. This lack of attention to the effects of globalization on individuals and communities serves to mask many of the global economy’s negative effects.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 2000
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You're Going to Eat That?

When the price paid to farmers for hogs crashed to Depression-era lows a year ago, it was nothing less than cataclysmic for independent hog growers. Already pressured by the rapid expansion of large-scale corporate hog farms, many independents were unable to absorb the losses and left farming for good.

Even if you have sworn off bacon and have never been within smelling distance of a hog farm, these events are worthy of your interest and concern. This year has brought stress, upheaval, and economic disaster to many rural communities at a pitch to match the farm crisis of the ‘80s. Weather extremes have forced more farmers out of business. But the combined effects of low prices, corporate aggression in the marketplace, and public policy that often undercuts the smaller-scale farmer has taken the more serious toll.

Droughts and floods have always been part of the farmers’ burden. However, despite rumors to the contrary, neither the market nor public policy are forces of nature. Through legislative agendas and what we put in our shopping carts, we help create the shape of farming in the United States.

A majority of Americans are suburbanites and city-dwellers, and the majority of them have uninterrupted access to abundant and affordable food despite market and natural disasters. So why should we have a problem with the current direction of farm production?

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 1999
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Terminate This!

There is something about standing in the middle of a field after most of the crops have been taken in that invites meditation. One afternoon last fall I was out collecting seeds in the field where we grow vegetables for our community vegetable project. It was one of those bright sunny days, with the leaves in full color and the air cool and crisp. Each year my wife and I plant extra crops to use for seeds the following year, and standing there in the rows of broccoli, the full impact of the new world order came home to me, the world order that is reshaping our food supply.

The face of farming is rapidly changing. This has been happening for the past several decades, but like everything else, it is accelerating faster and faster. Many of these changes aren’t in the interest of people or communities. The imminent revolution in seed production is a prime example of what is happening in almost every aspect of farming. For thousands of years farmers have grown their own seeds. But this isn’t the way that Monsanto, the World Bank, and the giant food-distribution corporations envision the future. Instead, they see genetically engineered seeds and a particularly nasty new development people have been calling "terminator" technology.

Terminator technology is an aspect of the new world order of agriculture that—unless people stand up and take notice—will be one of the methods used to control the world’s food supply in the next few years. The U.S. government has been funding research into terminator technology, which could make it impossible for farmers to grow their own seeds. Plant species that have been manipulated this way will be sterile. The seeds produced by the crops will not grow. There is only one purpose for terminator technology: maximizing profits. And right now the U.S. government is on the verge of giving this ability to Monsanto, a corporation rapidly becoming the world’s largest seed company with frightening monopolistic powers.

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Sojourners Magazine May-June 1999
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Merger Mania

From computer giants to the world's biggest oil companies, merger has become the favorite sport of the world's corporate and financial elites. Whether it's the information age giants like Netscape and America Online, or the industrial age behemoths like Exxon and Mobil, those who run the economy agree on one thing—bigger is better. What's wrong with this picture?

With Exxon's purchase of Mobil, creating a new company that is the biggest and richest in the world, the historic antitrust victory of 1911 that broke up the oil empire of John D. Rockefeller has been reversed.

Costs must be cut, say the new company's executives. What's the easiest way to do that? Cut more jobs. An estimated 10,000 workers will be sacrificed as a result of the Exxon-Mobil merger. But those workers are not alone in facing the prospect of losing their livelihoods. The list of companies whose reorganizations and cost cutting are causing layoffs is long. Boeing is cutting 48,000 jobs due to the Asian financial crisis. And who precipitated that? It certainly wasn't the workers who are losing their jobs, but financial investors whose greed got a little ahead of their common sense.

Let's take a look at some of the recurring facts of our economic life: Mergers are in, with new consolidations occurring every day. The new super-companies are slashing costs, with job layoffs the favorite tactic. Virtually every time jobs are cut, the value of the companies goes up—and the salaries of top executives are likely to go up as well.

Now consider the moral dimension of these economic realities. I know the stock market is not supposed to be judged by moral standards. The market is the great given—it's just what is. But do we really want to live that way? Few things impact our lives more than the economy—just ask all those folks who are losing their jobs.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 1999
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Degrees of Influence

Large corporations hold more power than ever in our society, and the influence that they exert is obvious in many arenas: over the economy, our political system and what legislation is passed, over the media and what ideas and opinions are conveyed. What is less immediately obvious is the increasing influence that large corporations have on the educational system in the United States, especially on higher education. While some notice has been paid to the reach of corporations into public K-12 schools with ventures such as Channel One, less attention has been given to the increasing influence of corporations on universities, both public and private, throughout the country.

The unprecedented influence of corporations, and corporate values, on universities has led to a number of disturbing trends that challenge the integrity of higher education in the United States. Corporations are more visible and more powerful than ever on college campuses. The governing boards of universities, as well as their trustees and regents, are increasingly the executives of large corporations. Universities are contracting out for more and more of their basic services, from cafeterias run by fast food chains and exclusive beverage contracts with Coca-Cola or Pepsi to university bookstores run by large bookstore chains such as Barnes & Noble. Such arrangements effectively shut out smaller, local companies that benefit the local economy instead of corporate interests.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 1999
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Radio Rules

When I was growing up in rural Ohio, I did not consider the local radio station to be a vibrant example of active democracy. Its offerings of school delay announcements, rank amateur call-in shows, high school basketball games, and farm reports were boring to me. I wanted (but could not find) punk rock.

Twenty years later, I'm still looking for non-homogenized music and ideas on the airwaves, as well as the local news I dismissed in my youth. But diverse, independent news and music seem harder to find than ever. There are reasons for this.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 eliminated the limits on the number of media outlets a single company could own. Since then, the rate of consolidation has been astonishing. The number of independently owned stations has been halved. Nearly a third of existing radio stations have changed hands, with the top 10 owners having doubled their holdings. Pre-packaged, nationally distributed programming and multiple stations in a single city with the same (off-site) corporate owner are now the norm. The price is being paid in the "blanding" of American radio content, potentially fewer opportunities for independent or minority ownership of stations, and increased corporate control of news and music.

But these problem trends are not new. Deregulation only exacerbated them. Independent, local radio—the type that broadcasts school board and city council meetings or promotes grassroots neighborhood organizing projects—has been getting squeezed off the dial for two decades. In 1978, the Federal Communications Commission eliminated licenses for low-power (10 watt and under) non-commercial FM stations, largely at the behest of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which sought to eliminate "unprofessional" community-based stations. Some insist the ban on low-power stations should be maintained because of the potential for out-of-control interference with other stations and air traffic control systems.

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Sojourners Magazine January-February 1999
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The Power of Alliance

Biblically, theologically, ethically, even pastorally, it is incumbent upon the church to stand with workers, to be with them in the struggle for justice, to join them in holding corporations accountable to human community.

The day before his death, in a prescient sermon now famous, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. urged pastors and laypeople to support the striking sanitation workers of Memphis, Tennessee, by turning to Luke's parable of the Good Samaritan. In summoning the congregation to break the court injunction by marching the day following, he detailed the risks of that biblical "bloody pass," the winding road from Jerusalem down to Jericho. He allowed that the priest and the Levite may have been simply afraid, warily wondering if the robbers still hovered about, or if the victim was himself a thief lying in wait in wounded disguise.

And so the first question the Levite asked was, "If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?" But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?" That's the question before you tonight. Not, "If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?"..."If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?" That's the question.

The Brickmakers Local
Not long ago I heard Rev. Joe Lowery of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference preach at a striking workers prayer service, "The first labor negotiations in history took place between Pharaoh and Moses." Actually, Exodus portrays a pretty remarkable piece of negotiating (seven chapters worth), with offers and counteroffers, nudges and reversals aplenty.

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Sojourners Magazine September-October 1998
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