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Big Ideas on Corporate Accountability and Global Sustainability


Russell Mokhiber 

and Robert Weissman

Sometimes,

it is important to think big.

In

an era where corporations trample across the globe with minimal restraint, and

citizen movements around the world are on their heels, it is natural — and

necessary — for those trying to check corporate power to think defensively and,

when they do reflect on affirmative proposals, incrementally.

But

it is important not to be overly constrained by the existing balance of forces.

If they are to engage, energize and mobilize large numbers of people, citizen

movements need to be animated by positive visions, as well. And while there is a

role for utopian outlines in suggesting what society could be, even more

important are concrete medium-term proposals that suggest attainable aspirations

and purposeful direction.

One

would not ordinarily look to the U.S. Congress for such ideas, but two members

of the U.S. House of Representatives have stepped forward to offer sweeping

proposals to regulate U.S.-based multinational corporations’ global operations

and to reorient the global economy to the pursuit of sustainable development,

not corporate greed.

Representative

Cynthia McKinney, D-Georgia, has introduced the Corporate Code of Conduct Act

(H.R. 4596) and Representative Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont, has

introduced the Global Sustainable Development Resolution (H.Res 479). (You can

find the bills at http://thomas.loc.gov.)

"It

is time we reclaim the global economy for the people who make it work,"

insists McKinney, "and stop pandering to corporate interests who build

their empires on the backs of the innocent."

"Corporate

globalization is forcing men and women around the world to run a destructive

race to the bottom — a competition in which workers, communities and entire

countries are forced to cut wages, environmental protections, and social

programs to attract footloose capital," says Sanders.

To

address these ills, McKinney’s bill would require all U.S.-based corporations

with more than 20 employees abroad to enact a code of conduct. Significantly,

the code also would apply to the companies’ subsidiaries, subcontractors,

affiliates, joint ventures, partners, or licensees — meaning companies like

Nike would not be able to disdain responsibility for the practices of their

subcontractors.

The

code would establish a floor for corporate behavior, requiring companies in

their overseas operations to:

  • pay

    a living wage and ban specific practices, such as mandatory overtime for

    workers under 18, pregnancy testing and retaliation against whistleblowers;

  • respect

    identified international labor standards (including the right to organize,

    minimum wage guarantees and protections for occupational safety and health);

  • adhere

    to both international environmental standards and U.S. federal environmental

    laws and regulations;

  • provide

    public documentation of where they are doing business directly or through

    subsidiaries or contractors, and extensive information on employment and

    environmental practices.

The

bill would enforce the code of conduct through two mechanisms. First, the U.S.

government would give preference to complying corporations in contracts and in

export assistance. The bill would include certification and reporting

requirements for companies, and would also establish an investigative process,

open to citizen initiation, to determine compliance. Second, victims of

violations of the bill — including non-U.S. citizens — would be empowered to

sue U.S. companies in U.S. courts.

The

Sanders resolution covers more territory than the McKinney bill. It too includes

a corporate code of conduct, to be negotiated internationally, that contains

many of the principles included in the McKinney bill. But the heart of the

Sanders resolution addresses the institutions regulating international commerce.

One

of the key mechanisms for developing its proposals is the creation of U.S. and

United Nations Commissions on the Global Economy. The U.S. commission would hold

town meetings and open hearings around the country to investigate the effect of

globalization on the workers, industry and environment of the United States. The

UN panel would both encourage other nations to hold their own series of town

meetings and would initiate a global North-South dialogue aiming for negotiation

of an international agreement for global sustainable development.

The

provisions that the Sanders resolution seeks to have enacted through global

negotiation or U.S. mandate include:

  • a

    tax on international currency transactions, designed to stem financial

    volatility;

  • creation

    of a global investment fund, to heighten demand and meet pressing needs in

    developing countries;

  • cancellation

    of the debts of the poorest countries, with no structural adjustment

    conditions (the package of Contract with America-style deregulatiory

    conditions) attached;

  • a

    remaking of the World Bank, so that it ends support for destructive

    megaprojects and instead supports development of poor countries’ renewable

    energy capacity and food security;

  • a

    shrinking of the International Monetary Fund; and

  • trade

    agreements that "remove labor and environmental rights and conditions

    and social protections as factors of competition, such as by international

    agreements to avoid competitive cuts in the social safety nets" and

    guarantee "the right of nations and localities to plan for local

    economic development objectives such as raising employment levels, enhancing

    employment opportunities for targeted populations, raising wage levels in

    specific industries, dignified work and healthy communities."

Neither

the McKinney bill nor the Sanders resolution will be enacted any time soon.

"This Congress is too beholden to corporate money to challenge its

corporate masters," explains Sanders.

Only

stronger grassroots movements offer the prospect of changing Congress’s primary

allegiance. The importance of initiatives like McKinney’s and Sanders’ is that,

by offering concrete proposals of steps to a better future, they can help

generate and develop those movements.

 

 Russell

Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter.

Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational Monitor.

Mokhiber and Weissman are co-authors of Corporate Predators: The Hunt for

MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press,

1999, http://www.corporatepredators.org)

(c)

Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman