A Right to Earnings

Programs of environmental and social activism directed against major American corporations are ubiquitous to the point of now being pro-forma exercises at corporate annual meetings. Even though many of these protests are led by people of religious faith, the goals of such activist projects are far from harmless and their desired goals should not be overlooked.

Underlying each of these actions, which take the form of demonstrations, public relations campaigns and shareholder resolutions, is a desire to undermine the “brand” of America's most important industries — with the long-term effect of diminishing a person's and, by logical extension, a corporation's, right to economic initiative.

A case in point are the protests directed at Ford Motor Co. at Monday's annual meeting. These demonstrations, organized by the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) and Global Exchange, are explicitly designed to get Ford to commit corporate suicide by threatening to damage its brand should it fail to adopt higher fuel economy standards for its fleet. Since a significant portion of Ford's sales involve vehicles that people actually want to buy — trucks and sport-utility vehicles — the adoption of higher fuel economy standards would be detrimental to both the company and consumers.

The activists are clever — in targeting Ford and other companies through high profile direct action campaigns, they can affect the “bottom line” by creating negative publicity. Environmental and social activists understand all too well that image is everything and enough negative publicity, regardless of whether it is true or false, fair or unfair, can be devastating to a major corporation.

Such tactics, however, raise important questions of honesty and justice, if not of legality. Should a company be “greenmailed” into adopting a dubious agenda clearly at odds with the company's obligations to countless employees and customers merely to satisfy the passions of professional agitators?

Reason, experience and faith teach us that the freedom to work, start businesses and provide for ourselves and families is a basic requirement for a moral society. What's more, our faith instructs us to make legitimate use of God-given talents and to put those talents to work for the benefit of all.

This right to economic initiative, as upheld by almost all religious traditions, is often the first victim of the professional activist campaigns that see nothing but environmental harm and labor exploitation in every arrangement made by current-day corporations.

This is not to say real harms and exploitative situations do not exist. When discovered and substantiated, such instances should be addressed and prosecuted to the fullest extent that the law provides. Rather, the ever-increasing size and scope of these well-financed and well-organized jeremiads against American businesses is eroding the most basic of worker's rights — the right to earn a living — in the name of ideology.

The goal of activists to “hit 'em where it hurts,” namely at the “bottom line,” really hits workers the hardest. In subjecting companies to unnecessary regulation and in forcing them to cede their corporate governance to national and supra-national authorities, creative initiative is replaced with passivity and resources are allocated to achieve compliance, rather than innovation.

Such a scenario results in less competition, loss of market share, higher consumer prices and increased unemployment. Higher rates of unemployment and higher consumer prices are hardships measured in very human terms for working families — something activists either don't know, or don't care about.

Campaigns launched by groups such as RAN and Global Exchange to undermine a company's good name result in damage to businesses and the people who depend on them. In human and moral terms, such programs cannot be defended. The fact is, “hittin' 'em where its hurts” hurts everybody.

Fr. Robert A. Sirico is president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.

(This article is a product of the Acton Institute — www.acton.org, 161 Ottawa NW, Suite 301, Grand Rapids, MI 49503 — and is reprinted with permission. This article originally appeared in The Detroit News, June 14, 2003.)

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