Challenging Corporate Power Initiative

February 29, 2024

Challenging Corporate Power Initiative

By: Ida V. Eskamani

The consolidation of corporate power in the hands of the elite few impacts every facet of our lives; connected directly to expanding wealth disparities and the rising cost of living, the existential climate crisis and rampant expansion of authoritarianism, and to the very existence of the multiracial democracy we strive for. 

Ida V. Eskamani of State Innovation Exchange chats with her twin sister Representative Anna V. Eskamani of Orlando, Florida about challenging corporate power in the states.

The concentration of corporate power does not happen by accident; it’s not the result of inevitable forces. It is a product of deliberate policy choices over decades and centuries. Racism, sexism, and classism are entrenched within our current economic system, by design. As a result, Black, immigrant, Indigenous, working class and rural communities, women, and queer people are disproportionately exploited and denied prosperity by these policies.

But historically, state legislators, in collaboration with the communities most impacted by these policy choices, have led the fight challenging corporate power– organizing our communities and taking on the corporate lobby to build economies that empower people. 

Challenging corporate power not only advances justice; it is essential to our organizing, allowing us to build movements that cross racial and ethnic lines, geographies, and issue-silos. Regardless of your area of expertise and the communities you organize with– whether it be education, agriculture, climate, housing, healthcare, criminal justice; or rural, urban, and suburban; the harms of corporate influence tie us together. Challenging corporate power offers easily identified villains, which is critical to organizing; and diminishes our opponents’ power by allowing us to neutralize the faux populism leveraged in the so-called “culture wars,” and expose the corporate donors and billionaires who fund these extremist campaigns. 

And finally, challenging corporate power is an opportunity to restore people’s trust in government, by demonstrating that governments can improve the daily lives of people and work with, by, and for all people, versus the elite few. Faith in our public institutions is essential to protecting our democracy from the rising threat of authoritarianism and increasing people’s engagement in our governing system. This work is essential towards advancing racial, gender, and economic justice; and state legislators are uniquely positioned to lead the charge, and win. 

Understanding our opponents:

The abuse of corporate power is rampant in our state capitols, where despite public opinion and undeniable economic disparities, the corporate lobby sets the agenda, with bipartisan success. 

From seemingly infinite campaign contributions, to state-by-state coordination of model policy, corporate lobbying power is massive– outnumbering public interest lobbyists in every metric.  Corporate mergers, tax-giveaways, privatization, deregulation, abusive preemption, and undermining workers’ collective bargaining rights are just a few of the policy tools used to concentrate corporate power over our economy and our democracy. Increasingly, private equity and AI threaten our economic freedoms as well. 

The corporate lobby also thrives on anonymity. Corporations protect their brands by hiding behind industry associations, such as state-affiliates of the national Chambers of Commerce, Retail Federation, Restaurant Association and Apartment Association.. The agribusiness lobby is especially good at concealing its true interests; capitalizing on romantic ideals of family farms and the fact that the majority of Americans now live far from farm life. Groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation, a pro-big business insurance company, and state-based groups such as “Oregonians for Food and Shelter,” a front group for the agro-chemical lobby, acclaim to represent farmer interests while actually promoting policies that run roughshod over rural communities, the environment, and public health – meanwhile asserting that anyone who opposes them is an out-of-touch urbanite. All of these front groups lead efforts to lobby policymakers on behalf of a small group of multinational corporations, despite claims that they represent small businesses. 

Despite what their public relations teams may claim, major corporations are deeply entrenched in the so-called “culture wars” as well, designed to both divide communities and deny economic opportunity. The same coordinated network of extremist billionaires, think tanks, and corporations pushing state laws to privatize public education, bust public sector unions, and roll back child labor protections are also working to erase Black history and criminalize queer kids. Extremist billionaires like the DeVos family, the Uline family, and Koch brothers, and the think-tanks they finance like the Foundation for Government Accountability, The Heritage Foundation, the Alliance Defending Freedom and American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) are just a few of the players involved in this strategy. While rigging the economy to their benefit with model policy, this same network is dismantling our freedom to vote, fueling election denial conspiracies, and pushing for a radical rewrite of the United States constitution.

This network promotes a false narrative that “government doesn’t work,” to erode people’s trust in government, leading to less engagement and further justification for the privatization they profit from, with our public dollars. We argue that our government is working very efficiently, but not for people– for corporations and their shareholders. By challenging corporate power, we reclaim control of our public institutions and build governments that work with, by, and for people. 

How do we challenge corporate power? 

We know that corporate power poisons every industry and impacts every facet of our lives. So how do we effectively challenge corporate power in the states? Our strategy consists of five key pillars:

1) Educate: We consistently educate legislators and partners on the past and present crisis of corporate power in the United States. We demonstrate the interconnectedness of our fights, the long-term and cross-state coordination of the corporate agenda, identify emergent threats and opportunities, and connect the dots of the corporate agenda not just in the economy, but in strengthening white supremacy, ideological extremism, and threatening our democracy. We also dream and build an economy that puts people before corporate power. 

2) Name Opponents: Effective campaigns have clearly identified and tangible villains. We are up against a coordinated and cynical machine of corporations, billionaires, and extremist front groups who find power in anonymity. We must name who is financing these campaigns, as well as their financial contributions to lobbying and elections. By exposing the coordinated network we are up against, we weaken their power and undercut their divide-and-conquer tactics. 

3) Organize: We organize state legislators in collaboration with the communities most impacted by these policy choices. We build broad, people-centered, multi-racial and multi-issue coalitions that name corporate power at the root of our challenges. We organize in-state and cross-state to facilitate peer-learning and multi-state strategy taking on corporate power. Recognizing that corporate interests have long promoted rural/urban culture wars and antagonism as a way to strengthen their position, our Cohort for Rural Opportunity and Prosperity helps state legislators be bold champions for progressive policies in rural and agriculture spaces that are typically dominated by legislators beholden to corporate interests.  

4) Policy Campaigns: Policy campaigns come from the grassroots, reflecting the dreams of communities most impacted by corporate power. There are countless policy campaigns taking on corporate power, from workers rights, rent control and right to repair, to holding corporations accountable, ending private prison contracts and busting corporate monopolies; legislators should be key organizing partners with  communities leading the charge. All policy campaigns help to build a cohesive state and national narrative. Defensive fights undermine the faux populist narrative leveraged by extremists and create a platform that speaks directly to the material needs of working families. Offensive campaigns offer real-world models for how the government can offer meaningful services directly to people.

5) Collaborative Governance: Our organizing model centers directly-impacted people working alongside and acting as key decision-makers with state policymakers. This includes policy drafting, passage, and implementation. Co-governance advances racial, gender, and economic justice while restoring trust in a government, by improving the material conditions of people and providing services better than corporations can. Ultimately, we seek to build an economy that serves people by promoting public options, fully-funded safety nets, and well-resourced state agencies. 

The work ahead: 

It’s hard to overstate the influence of corporations in every aspect of our lives. From our freedom to vote to the price of groceries; the cost of housing and healthcare to the curriculum we teach in schools; child labor and the right of workers to organize; the climate crisis, immigrant detention, and mass incarceration– you will find corporate influence at nearly at every level of government , undermining our public institutions to centralize power and profits at the expense of our livelihoods and freedoms. 

After a year of planning, partner cultivation, and strategy development, SiX formally launched our Challenging Corporate Power Initiative at our 2023 Accelerator Conference. We organized legislators and partners from across 16 states and DC to learn about the far-reaching impacts of corporate monopolies on workers, consumers, and local businesses, and how we can build an economy that works for us all.

We began the convening with a history of corporate power in the United States, fromour Rural, Agriculture & Food Systems team. The presentation links the concentration of corporate power to white supremacy and the foundation of the US economy, including the genocide of and landgrab from Indigenous people and the exploitation of Africans and Black Americans trafficked into the slave trade. With that foundation, we demonstrated how both everyday people and elected officials have successfully taken on corporate power to advance justice, how corporate power has fought back, and brought us to the present crisis we are in now. 

With legislators inspired by the convening, we launched a sign-on letter in partnership with the American Economic Liberties Project (AELP), rallying legislators behind the federal government's draft corporate merger guidelines. In less than a week, we secured 56 state legislators from 22 states in support of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Department of Justice (DOJ) proposed corporate merger guidelines.

As legislative sessions grind on, our team is on the ground and working across state lines to organize lawmakers, workers, and local businesses and leverage legislatures to fight back in ways that advance justice and build long term, durable power. We invite you to join us in this effort to challenge corporate power in our state capitols and our communities, towards a future where people, not multinational corporations, have what they need to thrive.

Acknowledgement: Gratitude to our Agriculture & Food Systems team members Kendra Kimbirakuskas and Siena Chrisman, for their work, and contributions to this piece. 

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