May 22--Home Depot Inc. has stopped selling endangered rain forest lumber. Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. have withdrawn from an industry group that's fighting efforts to stop global warming. Voluntary actions? Not exactly. These and other American companies have been under siege in recent years by a growing political movement that practices what it calls "corporate accountability campaigns." Under this umbrella can be found political, labor, religious and other groups trying to persuade businesses to change their stance on issues ranging from the environment to human rights to social justice. Dallas will briefly be a center of such activity next week, when almost 200 activists attend what organizers bill as the first conference for learning the skills, strategies and tactics of corporate accountability campaigns. Protests, boycotts and stock purchases -- so activists can attend shareholder meetings -- have all been brought to bear against the targets of these campaigns. Average Americans can no longer effectively air their views to elected officials, according to Peter Altman, whose organization is a sponsor of the "Empowering Democracy" conference Sunday through Tuesday at the Radisson Central Hotel. "There's been such a growth in corporate influence over the political process that those means simply aren't available," Mr. Altman said. The corporate accountability effort is heir to a long tradition of grass-roots, anti-business protests, dating to crusading 19th-century journalists. But if today's attacks against corporations are more sophisticated, so too are the companies themselves as they respond to citizen complaints, some say. Louis Thompson, president of the National Investor Relations Institute, says he counsels investor-relations professionals to talk with company critics. "The situation you're dealing with today is quite different than when Sinclair Lewis and the muckrakers were operating," Mr. Thompson said. "Most corporations realize being a good corporate citizen is important. You try to avoid the bad publicity and the bad images that can sometimes be cast on corporations."
Dr. Jarol Manheim, a political science professor at George Washington University, said the modern anti-corporation movement grew out of anti-apartheid and civil rights efforts of the 1960s. It has blossomed in recent years with the coordinated efforts of labor, environmental and other groups. "It's going to be the political story of the next five, 10 years," predicted Dr. Manheim, who has written a book about corporate campaigns. Eschewing electoral and legislative politics, groups involved in corporate campaigns look elsewhere to make their mark, according to Dr. Manheim. They might use regulatory agencies to try to accomplish their goals, he said, or appear before congressional committees to try to embarrass companies. The movement, he said, "shapes a lot of political decisions, particularly in the regulatory agencies." Corporate campaigners have also begun focusing on multinational institutions such as the World Bank, World Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund. Their footprints can be seen in the 1999 WTO protest in Seattle and subsequent trade protests in Washington, D.C., and, most recently, in Quebec. "Over the last two years, we've seen a dramatic increase in protests against globalization and international trade rules that trade off environmental and human rights in favor of huge corporations," said Mr. Altman, the conference organizer. "This is all part of a big picture of people in the United States feeling they have less control over laws and policies that affect their lives and less ability to get their elected officials to protect them," he said. Mr. Altman is coordinator of Campaign Exxon Mobil, an Austin-based coalition of religious and environmental groups that has been demanding the Irving-based oil company do more to combat global warming. Exxon Mobil rejects the group's criticism. Other sponsors of the Dallas conference include the AFL-CIO, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, Friends of the Earth, Global Exchange, Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network, Student Alliance to Reform Corporations and U.S. Public Interest Research Group. Dr. Manheim said most of the action is by liberal-progressive groups, because "these are the outs."
"This is how the left is coming back," he said. "But it's coming back in a different form. These are not liberals in the Hubert Humphrey sense. They're not talking about government programs to help people" but an anti-corporation ideology.