Labor Must Challenge Corporate Rule

Paul Cienfuegos’ September 8th, 2015 Commentary on KBOO Evening News


(His weekly commentaries are broadcast every Tuesday evening. You can view or listen to them all at,, or subscribe via ITunes. Listen to this one HERE.)


Greetings! You are listening to the weekly commentary by yours truly, Paul Cienfuegos.


This week, in honor of our national Labor Day holiday, which took place yesterday, I’m going to read excerpts from a seminal article about labor organizing versus corporate constitutional so-called “rights”. It’s titled “Labor Must Challenge Corporate Rule” – and was originally published in 1999 by Peter Kellman, an extraordinary labor organizer and author. I hope you find it as fascinating as I do.


It is time for labor to go beyond signing contracts with corporations. We need to start challenging the very concept of corporate privilege and rule.


The people of this country need to act on the understanding that we the people create corporations through our state legislatures. As the Pennsylvania Legislature declared in 1834, “A corporation in law is just what the incorporation act makes it. It is the creature of the law and may be molded to any shape or for any purpose the Legislature may deem most conducive for the common good.” If we don't mold corporations, they will continue to mold us. They will mold us at the expense of our rights, our health, our democracy, our communities, our environment and most importantly our souls.


For almost 80 years, labor's message has been primarily limited to protecting the interests of organized workers. But workers' rights don't exist in a vacuum. A fundamental law of physics can also be applied to politics: two things cannot occupy the same place at the same time. Workers' rights in this country have been relegated to a little space under a chair in the corner of a large room occupied by corporate “rights”. …


People have … inalienable rights. Corporations have only the privileges we the people give them, because corporations are created by people through their legislatures. Corporations are not mentioned in the … Constitution. Their constitutional privileges stem from Supreme Court cases, judge-made law. … In Santa Clara County v. the Southern Pacific Railroad Corporation (1886), the Supreme Court … declared that “...equal protection of the laws, applies to these corporations.” …


Equal protection is a term used in the 14th Amendment to bring African-Americans under constitutional protection. The activist Court of 1886 bestowed “equal protection” on the corporation. This judicial conversion of people's rights to corporate privilege has done much to create the present situation. The price of each expansion of corporate privilege has been a contraction in workers' rights.


Every day union people are confronted with this erosion of their rights in union organizing, internal governance, the political process and authority over union property such as pension funds. Look, for example, how the court's role diminishes the power of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to the detriment of workers' rights.


OSHA was put in place by Congress in 1970. When you called up OSHA, it would send an investigator to your place of work. Corporate managers objected and went to court. They argued that the corporation should be afforded the same protection that flesh and blood people have under the Fourth Amendment against unreasonable searches of their property. They said OSHA inspectors needed a search warrant to inspect corporate property!


In 1978 (Marshall v. Barlow) the Supreme Court of the United States agreed. So the right of individual people to be protected from the government arbitrarily entering a person's home was extended to corporations. The Court ruled that corporations have the privilege to require OSHA inspectors to get a search warrant before entering corporate property to investigate the complaints of a worker regarding her health and welfare. … In this case, while the OSHA inspector is getting a warrant from a judge, the corporation can clean up its act and avoid being found in violation of the law.


The OSHA case is but one example of how the granting of privileges to corporations diminishes the rights of workers. Another is the way corporate employers injected “employer free speech rights” into the process by which workers exercise their “right to associate” in choosing a union to represent them in the workplace.


Under the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) required employer neutrality when it came to the self-organization of workers. That is, if an employer interfered in any way with a union organizing drive, it was considered a violation of the Act. “The right of employees to choose their representatives when and as they wish is normally no more the affair of the employer than the right of the stockholders to choose directors is the affair of employees”, stated the Board. However, with the 1947 passage of the Taft-Hartley Act (termed “the slave labor act” by labor), corporate privilege was inserted into labor rights and corporations were granted “free speech” in the union certification process. …


[I]f you are involved in a union organizing drive, the brutality of the corporate employer's use of “free speech” to usurp the worker's right to “freedom of association” becomes apparent in many ways. One example is called the “captive audience meeting” where the employer assembles workers during working hours and harangues them on the negative consequences of unionization. … So much for a worker's right to “freely associate.” …


So what is labor to do? Labor should take a sabbatical for a year and use the time to analyze what we have been doing over the past century. Then, with history as a guide and real democratic participation of the membership, labor could put together a new agenda that promotes workers' rights and attacks corporate privileges.


I have been reading excerpts from an article titled “Labor Must Challenge Corporate Rule” by Peter Kellman, a labor organizer and author of a number of books including Building Unions, Divided We Fall, and Pain on Their Faces. You can put Peter Kellman’s name in google and find many more of his provocative articles about labor and corporate rule.


You’ve been listening to the weekly commentary by yours truly, Paul Cienfuegos. You can hear future commentaries every Tuesday on the KBOO Evening News in Portland, Oregon, and on a growing number of other radio stations. I welcome your feedback.


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