Corporations vs. Community: One Judge's Stand Against G.M.

(previously published in the Seattle Community Catalyst and the Madison Edge)

For a brief hiccup of history, a warning shot has been fired across the bow of the U.S.S. Corporate Greed. On February 9th, Michigan Circuit Court Judge Donald Shelton issued a court order blocking General Motors' plans to pick up and relocate its Ypsilan ti assembly plant to Arlington, Texas. Shelton ruled that G.M. had promised "continuous employment" when it asked Ypsilanti for $13.5 million in tax abatements for the plant in 1984 and 1988. He said that a "gross inequity and patent unfairness" would occ ur if G.M. "is allowed to simply decide to desert 4500 workers and their families because it thinks it can make these same cars a little cheaper somewhere else."

Having plundered all it can from the people of Ypsilanti, the U.S.S. Corporate Greed intended to sail to another port. At issue is one of the fundamental tenets of freedom, liberty and the Founding Padres -- namely the inherent right of private property o wners to do whatever they want with their property, free from most forms of government interference.

But times have changed, and the wind that filled the colonial sails two hundred years ago blows a flat doldrums today. The threat today is not only from invasive government, but also from the pervasive tentacles of private corporations that dominate our c ommunities, our jobs, the air waves, the printing presses and TV cameras, burping seductive advertisements into our TV living rooms. Between employer, employees and their communities there is an inherent relational exchange, but when the employer is a mon strous corporation like G.M. the exchange is one-sided. Workers, indeed whole communities, are reduced to a state of dependency so that the mere threat of corporate disinvestment is usually sufficient to squeeze out of them concession after concession. Th e corporate managers smile with advantage as they pit the workers of one region, state or country against another, leading to lowered wages, health, environmental and safety standards for all.

This struggle has been happening all over the United States. Replace G.M. with Boeing, Hormel or Pittston, and Ypsilanti with Seattle WA, Austin MN or the coal mines of West Virginia. In search of "ideal investment climates" and Holy Profits, beholden onl y to stock holders who live hundreds and even thousands of miles away, jobs take flight with little concern for the decimation wrought to host communities. Like a marauding pirate galleon screaming to shore, absconding with the booty and sailing seaward a gain, corporations have reneged on their compacts with our communities. Destroyed lives are the "collateral damage" of this profiteers' war, the debris of human lives caught in something larger than themselves, something unlooked for, something they could not plan around or completely comprehend. Something that hits suddenly with a force beyond daily comprehension of the natural laws of dishes and gossip and television sit-coms. And suddenly there it is, looming in front of you, big as a battleship -- it' s the U.S.S. Corporate Greed, the Free Traders' Armada, firing a broadside of cannons and bombarding the minikins in its path. And so what can you do? Stand, run, it doesn't matter little human -- you shall be crushed!

But not this time. At least not yet. For a brief shining moment one circuit court judge is standing up to the junta of Generalissimo Motors, who has, of course, appealed his decision. Judge Shelton, who is an elected public official, has acted on the unde rstanding that the economic pain and social consequences of unfettered corporate decision-making have become too costly to leave unchecked. Corporate disinvestment from our communities is a growing blight, and new concepts of worker and community protecti on are needed.

What kinds of protections are needed? For starters, "exit taxes" paid by disinvesting corporations to the abandoned communities. These exit taxes would assist in the diversification of the local economy, the re-training of workers, and would provide badly needed funds to the social services necessary to help unemployed workers get over the hump.

But the real issue is one of economic partnership between community and private business. When a private corporation sets up shop somewhere, availing itself of the human and material resources of that community, entering or breaking that economic and soci al compact must be a two-way street. It's time to legally codify the rights and decision-making powers of the stakeholders of the corporations -- the employees of the company, and the inhabitants of the community where the companies reside -- and balance these against those of the stockholders -- the absentee owners of the corporation. For instance: since corporations are such dominant players in our communities, why shouldn't registered voters help elect the corporate commanders? And why shouldn't elec ted community representatives sit as an equal on the company board of directors, part of the iterative process of making policy decisions?

These are precisely the types of policies that Judge Shelton's ruling suggests. In his ruling, Judge Shelton stated:

"The relationship of government and necessarily one of conflict, for it is the purpose of government to provide for the common welfare of all and it is the antithetical purpose of an industry to strive solely for the profit of its owners...I ndustry is a source of many of the jobs in our nation and it may be well that our nation needs a new relationship of trust and cooperation between government and industry...But such an effort must be national in scope and must be a real partnership, not o ne in which industry simply views government as another opportunity to increase profits."

The course of the U.S.S. Corporate Greed has heretofore been charted by the commander of the ship and a few hand-picked officers. But we need all hands on deck. In this land of democracy, it is time to democratize our economy. If we don't, we will continu e to see our communities abandoned. And the pirates will sail seaward, loaded down with piles of treasure, looking for a new sunset where they can anchor, perhaps in Texas, or Mexico, or the Philippines, or somewhere...

A national grass roots movement of labor and community groups is emerging around this court case, led by attorney Staughton Lynd. Lynd is asking workers who have gone through shutdowns or are currently fighting a shutdown, and other interested individual s and organizations, to join in a friend-of-the-court brief and other efforts to publicize this case. For more info, contact Staughton Lynd at 1694 Timbers Court, Niles OH 44446, Tel. (216) 744-3196.

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