Multinational Monitor

JAN/FEB 2001
VOL 22 No. 1


Taking on Corporate Power: Campaigns That Have Made a Difference
by the Monitor Editorial Staff

Brazil's MST: Taking Back the Land
by Jason Mark

A Clean Sweep: Justice for Janitors
by Carter Wright

Working for a Living Wage
by Jen Kern

Felling the Lumbering Giants
by Jen Krill

Taking on Toxics I: Stopping POPs
by Charlie Cray

Taking on Toxics II: Health Care Without Harm
by Charlie Cray

The Great South African Smokeout
by Anna White

Haiti's Thirst for Justice
by Charles Arthur

Students Against Sweatshops
by Stew Harris

Lilliputians Rising - 2000: The Year of Global Protest Against Corporate Globalization
guest commentary by Walden Bello


Defying the Drug Cartel: The South African Campaign for Access to Essential Medicines
an interview with
Zackie Achmat


Behind the Lines

The Corporate Conservative Administration Takes Shape

The Front
Damning the Dams - People's Health Assembly

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Names In the News


Taking on Corporate Power: Campaigns That Have Made a Difference

If there is one complaint that Multinational Monitor readers most often lodge, it is that the magazine is "too negative" or "too depressing."

"Isn't anything good happening? Don't people ever win?" we're often asked.

In fact, despite the overwhelming might of multinational corporations, citizen campaigns that take on corporate power do often succeed in winning victories. And we do try to highlight these victories, though not as systematically as we might.

That's a shortcoming we try to address with this special issue of Multinational Monitor, focused on winning campaigns.

In the ensuing stories, we highlight a wide range of citizen victories, in the United States and abroad. These stories illustrate important and newsworthy achievements in their own right; collectively, they also demonstrate that a new worldwide surge in citizen organizing, conducted in many different sectors and across sectors, is achieving significant victories.

The campaigns discussed here - and many others not covered - have limited the power of corporations, forced corporations to agree to conditions of operation not of their choosing and imposed constraints on corporate activities through law and regulation. They have improved people's standard of living, protected the environment and made the world safer and healthier. They have helped create a world in which citizens are able to carry on economic activity and live their lives more on their own terms, and less on terms dictated by large corporations.

Hundreds of thousands of people, or perhaps many more, have been empowered in the process, given a glimpse of a life in which humans, not corporations, are sovereign, and where economic activity is conducted to serve broad public purposes - and with due respect for environmental stewardship - not solely for profit-maximization.

As a Brazilian farmer who gained land through Brazil's impressive Landless Workers Movement (MST) tells Jason Mark in "Brazil's MST: Taking Back the Land," "From the moment in which you involve yourself in the struggle, you begin to acquire a bit of consciousness and you begin to fight not just for your rights but for the rights of all the exploited in Brazil and the world."

The activists who have conducted these campaigns share a high degree of creativity, persistence and a refusal to be intimidated by corporations which inevitably denounce their demands as unreasonable.

But even though their examples make clear that there is no single approach to conducting winning campaigns, some important themes do emerge:

  • Direct action and public pressure. Corporations rarely agree to positive changes in their behavior without feeling pressure or facing the threat of pressure campaigns. Demonstrations, protests and nonviolent civil disobedience can apply a uniquely effective pressure on corporate adversaries. Creative direct action may even itself achieve a campaign's goals, as in the case of Brazil's MST.
  • Community involvement and alliance building. Campaigns succeed when they are able to draw in other social actors, when organizers do the hard work of bringing together broad-based coalitions. Corporations are more prone to concede when they risk ostracism from an entire community.
  • Positive vision. Many successful campaigns are driven by a justifiable outrage against injustice, but their message is usually carried forward by a positive vision of a more just ordering of society: A Living Wage. Green Hospitals. Thriving Old-Growth Forests.
  • Working up the supply chain. While corporations increasingly are seeking to deny responsibility for how their products are produced or serviced, many successful campaigns cut through the corporate veil - rhetorical and legal - to demand that major companies take responsibility for the actions of their suppliers and subcontractors.

Many of the campaigns illustrate how a strong movement can gain momentum, with previous victories and demonstrations of power making subsequent gains easier. This is especially the case where activist demands do not pose fundamental threats to the target companies: Home Depot has little vested interest in sourcing its lumber from old-growth forest. One interesting, related phenomenon is how corporations can, over time and in the face of pressure, change the definition of their fundamental interests. Granting janitors or sweatshop workers a small raise, once bitterly resisted, can suddenly seem a reasonable concession.

In many ways, this is the challenge facing all citizen movements against entrenched corporate power and for a more just, humane and ecologically sustainable society: to expand the realm of what seems achievable, even in the face of corporate resistance.

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