Stakeholders versus Stockholders

Article excerpt

With NAFTA behind us and GATT in front, it's no wonder that working people have begun to feel surrounded. There seems to foe little to stop these twin steamrollers from running us over, as the workers of the world prepare finally to unite--in the unemployment line.

But there have been stubborn pockets of resistance to free trade that have sprung up over the last few years. Particularly interesting are those that have redrawn the ideological battle lines in new ways. Free traders count on pitting disposable worker against disposable worker, state against state, country against country, rendering all like the helpless brazos at the end of the film El Norte, pleading "Take me, take me!" to the callous foreman. The partial antidote to such autocracy has been to incite not worker against worker as the corporations would like but, rather, impacted communities and families against capitalist greed. With occasional assistance from state and local government, abandoned communities have begun to devise new strategies for fighting back.

The two cases of community resistance examined in this article are worth noting for two reasons. First, support for this ideological realignment has sometimes come from odd--even suspect--sources, including corporations like Westinghouse Electric and Scott Paper Co., the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, Republicans in the Pennsylvania state legislature, and one solitary circuit court judge and local government officials in Michigan. This wide base of resistance is reflective of a Perot style populist appeal that resounds through out the anti-free trade and anti-capitalist greed battle cry. Like its historical antecedents, 1990s populism is a curious blend of left and right, of local versus national politics (though the right wing of 1990s populism has paternalistically seized upon the theme of "the community" for its own purposes).

Second, despite the importance of what these two episodes reveal for the purpose of building a grassroots base for fighting "free trade," the progressive/left press almost entirely over looked their occurrence. As a result, the left/progressive forces largely missed the opportunity to glean how a powerfully populist message--one that poses communities against capitalist greed--might provide the foundations of a progressive strategy able to capitalize on the dislocation and havoc that multinational corporations have caused in the lives of working people in this country and others.

Case One: Pennsylvania Fires a Shot

In December 1989, articles first appeared in the New York Times and the Wall Steet Journal alerting the capitalist world to a new anti takeover corporate law proposed in Pennsylvania. For the next eight months, articles and editorials appeared regularly in the capitalist press, including the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Business Week, the Philadelphia Business Journal, and the New York Times, reporting about--and, in most cases, vociferously condemning--this bill. Forbes called it "socialism Pennsylvania style," Business week labeled it "a dangerous game," and the New York Times opined that the anti takeover statute was the "sorriest example of state intervention" The mighty wallets of the financial world--including the United Shareholders of America, corporate raiders like T. Boone Pickens, the chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and institutional (mutual and pension fund) investors like the $60 billion California Public Employees Retirement System--condemned the anti takeover bill and threatened federal lawsuits as well as a boycott of Pennsylvania.

Why did this law strike such a nerve? And who was it designed to protect?

There were four provisions to the Pennsylvania law, the first two of which were designed to clamp down on corporate raiders by limiting the voting rights of any shareholder who acquired company holdings of 20 percent or more, and by fore ing corporate raiders to surrender short term profits (or "green mail") realized from unsuccessful hostile takeover attempts. …