How Bad Can Corporations Be?

Jousting is fun, feudalism is not. Image copyright by Loura Lawrence.

“So to speak, I was become a stockholder in a corporation where nine hundred and ninety-four of the members furnished all the money and did all the work, and the other six elected themselves a permanent board of direction and took all dividends. It seemed to me that what the nine hundred and ninety-four dupes needed was a new deal.” A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court,
Mark Twain, 1889.

What are the legal limits when it comes to private institutions and corporations versus worker’s rights? Do these companies have a right to determine or limit how adults choose to make legal life choices? The answers are a shocking “not many” and “yes”, and many businesses take gross advantage of their employees. For a country that prides itself on freedom of choice for its people and the advocacy of human rights, this state of things simply should not be.

Take this article for example, which reports on certain Christian colleges that ban students from having abortions, sex outside of marriage, or single parents (specifically mothers), but have received federal exemptions from this being legally called discrimination (this, in direct contrast to the federal bullying endured by this Illinois school district I wrote about a few weeks ago):

hobby lobbyThese colleges are similar to the recent Supreme Court/Hobby Lobby birth-control exemption, as well as several other religious organizations that have received similar treatment, and while I will admit to being pro-life and encouraging Christian values, I frankly do not think it is the business of a college, even a religious one, to hand-pick students based on lifestyle rather than academics. The school or religious corporation may teach what it wants, it should not be allowed to ban students or fire employees because they disagree with a student or employee’s legal lifestyle choices.

In the secular sector are companies that go so far as to forbid employees from smoking, even in their homes; the worrisome increase in monitoring employees’ private communications at work or on social media; even the ability to fire a worker for a bumper sticker. While businesses are certainly entitled to some protections against bad workers, there seem to be no protections for workers from bad businesses.

“What most Americans generally don’t know is that the Constitution doesn’t apply to private corporations at all.” ~Lewis Maltby, President of the National Workrights Institute, author of Can They Do That?

“Some employers who issue company cell phones use [GPS] technology to track employees during their private lives, often in secret. Recently developed genetic tests allow employers to determine whether you carry the genes linked to breast cancer, Alzheimer’s, and other serious illnesses. Employers are starting to use this knowledge to keep people out of the workforce to save money on corporate medical costs. Some biometric security systems, such as retina scans (which chart the blood vessels in your eye), reveal sensitive medical information such as whether you are diabetic, and facilitate identity theft.”

How did it come to this? Human history tends toward these abuses by the wealthy and powerful again and again. It happened during the Middle Ages between feudalism and the Church, it happened during the monarchies of the 1700s, prompting international revolutions, it happened during the American Gilded Age of 1870-about 1900, and it is happening again, now.

Written in 1906, The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair, caused a sensation that translated into national social and law reform (and a national reduction in the consumption of meat for a decade!). The novel follows a newly immigrated family to the meat-packing industry of Chicago, and graphically details the sordid abuses of government officials and employers that routinely took place against workers and society. Lest you think these abuses are long gone in history, I have given at least one modern example that parallels the “old”.

meat packing

“Trimming beef off the bones by the hundred weight, while standing up from morning till late at night, with heavy boots on and the floor always damp and full of puddles, liable to be thrown out of work indefinitely because of slackening in the trade, liable again to be kept overtime in rush seasons, and be worked till she trembled in every nerve and lost her grip on her slimy knife, and gave herself a poisoned wound–that was the new life that unfolded itself before Marija.” p 105

According to the book, The Cheating Culture, by David Callahan (2004):

“Between 1979 and 2000, the amount of time spent at work by the average [American] employee increased by 162 hours–an extra month a year. Between 1989 and 2000 alone, average annual hours increased by 95, more than two additional weeks on the job. Another solution [to rising financial pressures] has been to borrow money…American households who have credit card debt have seen their balances increase by 66 percent in the past decade…Yet with even harder work and heavier borrowing, many people still can’t keep up.” p. 119

“The equivalent of natural selection at Enron was the performance-review system that Skilling implemented within the company. Better known as “rank and yank” or “forced ranking,”the system compelled Enron managers to rate all their employees every six months from one to five, and then fire 15 percent of those at the bottom every year, even if these “fives” were actually not bad employees…Rank and yank became common in the ruthless corporate world of the 1990s, and remains widely used today…The system was frequently used for vendettas…[or] to silence dissent.” p. 130

In addition to the lack of workers’ rights within corporations are environmental scandals, community abuses, and political cover-ups.

Writes Sinclair,

“‘Bubbly Creek’ is an arm of the Chicago River…all the drainage of the square mile of packing houses empties into it, so that it is really a great open sewer, a hundred or two feet wide…The filth stays there forever and a day…here and there [it] has caked solid…Every now and then the surface would catch fire and burn furiously, and the fire department would have to come and put it out.” p. 94

The 2000 film, Erin Brockovich details the real-life story of one California town that had been a dumping ground for the PG&E corporation since 1966, with serious consequences to the health of those living there.

“The packers had secret mains, through which they stole billions of gallons of the city’s water. The newspapers had been full of this scandal–once there had even been an investigation, and an actual uncovering of the pipes; but nobody had been punished, and the thing went right on.” p. 94, The Jungle

Compare this issue of meatpacking companies stealing water, written about in 1906, and this modern day one involving a foreign water bottling company stealing water from the forests of California, a state dealing with severe, long-term drought.

“The people of Chicago saw the government inspectors in Packingtown, and they all took that to mean that they were protected from diseased meat; they did not understand that these hundred and sixty-three inspectors had been appointed at the request of the packers, and that they were paid by the United States Government to certify that all the diseased meat had been kept in the state. They had no authority beyond that; for the inspection of meat to be sold in the city and state, the whole force in Packingtown consisted of three henchmen of the local political machine!” p. 94-95, The Jungle

More than 100 years after The Jungle was written, the exact same abuses are taking place in none other than, yes, meat packing industries. From the article,

“A government-run pilot program experimenting with a reduced inspection protocol in Hormel-controlled plants “is out of control,” according to Joe Ferguson, who retired in September as an on-line USDA inspector inside Quality Pork Processors, an exclusive co-packer for Hormel located in Austin, Minnesota. Calling the program “a sham the career bureaucrats have drafted to get rid of inspectors,” he warned that higher-ups at the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) are “in bed with the regulated industry. The companies are now calling the shots. Pretty soon the agency will have no authority.”

Two other sources reveal similar issues with tainted meat and poor inspection for the sake of more money at the expense of people in the United States, see here and here.

“Here was a population, low-class and mostly foreign, hanging always on the verge of starvation, and dependent for its opportunities of life upon the whim of men every bit as brutal and unscrupulous as old-time slave drivers…Things that were quite unspeakable went on there in the packing houses all the time, and were taken for granted by everybody, only they did not show, as in the old slavery times, because there was no difference in color between master and slave.” p 106, The Jungle

In 1935, in response to The Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed the National Labor Relations Act, also known as the Wagner Act (among several other laws), that ensured workers’ collective bargaining rights (unions) with corporations, and prohibited corporations from interfering with labor unions, stating:

“The inequality of bargaining power between employees who do not possess full freedom of association or actual liberty of contract and employers who are organized in the corporate or other forms of ownership association substantially burdens and affects the flow of commerce, and tends to aggravate recurrent business depressions, by depressing wage rates and the purchasing power of wage earners in industry and by preventing the stabilization of competitive wage rates and working conditions within and between industries.”

Those reforms stayed put until the 1980s, when, according to David Callahan, a slew of deregulation laws passed during the 80s, stripped unions and workers:

“As lead advocates of downsizing and defanging government, conservative politicians and intellectuals helped create the kind of permissive environment where corporate scandals occurred…During the deregulation craze the government scaled back rules governing utilities, banking, telecommunications, airlines, trucking, and other industries. A zeal for privatization led to more government functions being turned over to private contractors–often with few safeguards to prevent abuse. The flood of money into politics, deeply corrupting both parties, partly explains why government enforcers were sidelined during the boom. Free-market ideology explains even more.” p. 138, The Cheating Culture

Just as law reform was the only thing that fixed, and then derailed, the crises between workers and corporations in the early 1900s, so it is today, writes worker’s rights advocate Lewis Maltby, …the only answer is to change the law.Mark Twain wrote as much in 1889, in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, arguably Twain’s political manifesto:

“The country is the real thing, the substantial thing, the eternal thing; it is the thing to watch over, and care for, and be loyal to; institutions are extraneous, they are its mere clothing, and clothing can wear out, become ragged, cease to be comfortable, cease to protect from winter, disease, and death. To be loyal to rags, to shout for rags, to worship rags, to die for rags–that is a loyalty of unreason…it belongs to monarchy, was invented by monarchy; let monarchy keep it.

I was from Connecticut, whose Constitution declares, “that all political power is inherent in the people, and all free governments are founded on their authority and instituted for their benefit…”

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Published by Loura Shares A Story

Loura Lawrence is a tireless, creative entrepreneur specializing in media, communications, and the arts. She holds a Liberal Arts degree in English with a background in photojournalism, and is passionate about education, public policy reform, and women's issues.

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