From insurance companies lording over our health care to global conglomerates taking control of our water, corporate giants wield more and more influence over our lives and our environment. So how do we fight back? How do we take on corporate power and actually win?
The Democracy Center recently published a new citizen's resource that looks up close at the strategies that people and communities are using worldwide to successfully tackle corporate giants. We call it Beating Goliath and you can download a free copy here. As Occupy and other movements across the world take up anew the question of how to combat corporate power, here are three good lessons from the front lines.
1. Make it Personal: The Battle Against Bechtel
In 2000, under pressure from the World Bank, the government of Bolivia privatized the public water system of its third largest city, Cochabamba, and leased the water to a subsidiary of the California corporate giant, Bechtel. When Bechtel raised rates astronomically within a few weeks, the city rebelled in the now-famous Water Revolt and forced Bechtel to leave. The following year Bechtel struck back, filing a $50 million demand for lost profits against the people of Cochabamba, in a trade court operated by the same World Bank.
The global campaign against Bechtel's anti-Bolivia lawsuit was based on one key principle: Make life miserable for the corporation's namesake and CEO, Riley Bechtel, and other company officials. Corporations are designed to shield their top executives from accountability. Anti-Bechtel campaigners gave Mr. Bechtel no such luxury. They bombarded him with emails to his personal account. They lambasted him by name over and over again in the media. Protesters shut down access to his San Francisco headquarters and in Washington picketed the home of one of his subordinates.
In January 2006, Bechtel officials flew to Bolivia to sign an agreement dropping their case for a token payment of thirty cents, the first such capitulation ever by a major corporation in a global trade case. The lawyer who represented the Bolivian government in the negotiations, when asked by the Democracy Center why the company had capitulated, said, “The CEO told the lawyers to make the case go away.” In the end the damage to Bechtel's reputation outweighed what it hoped to win from the Bolivian people.
2. Add Humor to Your Protests: Switching off Coal Plants in the UK
In 2006 E.On (a German energy company) announced plans to replace a coal-fired power station in Southeast England, with yet another climate-threatening coal-fired power station. A two-year campaign was waged by grassroots groups and climate activists to stop the company's plan. Campaigners took actions ranging from online pledges, to mass civil disobedience, and at one point completely shut down the existing power plant with protests.
It was the addition of humor, however, to their protest actions, which helped gain the campaign widespread positive public attention. Activists dispatched a team of ‘cleaners’ to scrub coal clean outside an E.On office (to call attention to the company's claims of 'clean coal') and invaded a company office with a posse of Santas delivering coal to “naughty” company officials. Finally, the campaign 'occupied' a company-sponsored replica of the coal plant at Legoland, unveiling a banner saying “STOP CLIMATE CHANGE” down the length of the tiny tower. In 2009, under mounting public pressure, E.On announced that they were shelving the plans for the new Kingsnorth power station. The UK government also announced that it would not approve the development of new coal-fired stations without ‘Carbon Capture and Storage’ (a promised future technology that has not yet been successfully implemented in any working power plant.)
3. Go After the Shareholders: Taking on Occidental Petroleum in Colombia
In the early 1990s Occidental Petroleum set its sights on developing a set of major oil fields in Colombia's biodiversity-rich cloud forest, home to the indigenous U’wa people. The indigenous community's opposition to Occidental's drilling plans was rooted in a spiritual belief that oil is the blood of mother earth, and the knowledge that oil infrastructure in their lands would become a magnet for armed violence and the country's FARC rebels. With the Colombian government eager to support the project, the U’wa, alongside international allies, undertook a global campaign to block Occidental's drilling plans.
With dreams of vast profits dancing in their heads, Occidental executives seemed immovable, so Amazon Watch and others mobilized for a companion strategy–target the oil conglomerate's current and potential shareholders. Campaigners staged protest actions at Fidelity Investments, a major Occidental stockholder, and sponsored shareholder resolutions against the project at other companies. The targeting of investors coupled with the unshakable dedication and unity of the U’wa people helped convince the business community that Occidental's oil plans in the cloud forest faced too much opposition to be a good business investment.
The campaign eventually took its toll on Occidental. Fidelity, the target of 75 protests in just 6 months, withdrew $400 million dollars of its investments in the oil firm. Eventually Occidental announced that it would return control of its main exploration site to the Colombian government, claiming that it had failed to find the oil deposits it had expected. Whether Occidental cared to admit it or not, the U'wa and their global allies had won.