Seattle’s June 2014 passage of a $15 minimum wage was widely reported as a victory for low-wage workers. But the ink was barely dry on the new law when fast food companies sued the city for, among other things, violating their constitutional rights.
And in Missouri, citizens of St. Louis gathered thousands of signatures for a citizens’ initiative that would end taxpayer subsidies for Peabody Coal and other big fossil fuel companies. But just days before the April 2014 election, a Circuit Court judge ruled that the measure would violate the company’s constitutional rights. And while the citizens’ initiative was tied up in appeals, a compliant state Legislature passed a law making that sort of initiative illegal.
These are just a couple of the stories Jeff Clements, co-founder of Free Speech for People and president of American Promise, uses to illustrate what happens when corporations claim constitutional rights, like free speech and equal protection. These sorts of rights, Clements believes, were intended for human beings, not corporations.
The conflict between American citizens and powerful corporations is not new.
In an illuminating piece, author and television host Thom Hartmann traces the clash to the Boston Tea Party (one of the nation’s first anti-free-trade protests) and to the 130-year-old Supreme Court ruling, Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Co., which, in the headnotes, included the statement that corporations are legally people.
The question of corporate claims to constitutional rights took on added urgency with the 2010 Citizens United ruling. In that case, the Supreme Court overturned laws regulating campaign spending, basing its decision on a corporation’s First Amendment rights to free speech.
Since then, a movement has grown to counter the influence of corporations and big money in elections—specifically, to challenge corporations’ claims to constitutional rights. As part of that movement, Clements, former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, and others involved with the group American Promise are pressing for a constitutional amendment that would overturn the Citizens United ruling. The 28th Amendment, as they see it, would affirm that only human beings have rights, and those include the right to regulate big money spending in politics.
Clements once worked as part of a team at the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office that sued big tobacco for hiding the truth about the deadly effects of smoking and the George W. Bush-era Environmental Protection Agency for failing to regulate greenhouse gases. This experience led him to believe that big money is distorting all aspects of our society: “A well-funded campaign over many years had shifted our Constitution to mean something it was never intended to mean, to lock in privilege, lock in power, and to prevent the collective power of human beings in a democracy from making the choices we need to be able to make.”
For Ohio’s Nina Turner, it’s making sure that equal protection means equal for human beings:
“I want every American to have voice,” she told me. “I don’t think any American in this country should ever feel that their voice is being drowned out. Especially because they are not wealthy.”
The Supreme Court is often on the wrong side of history, Clements said. It held that slavery was legal in the Dred Scott decision, prevented women from voting, and struck down child-labor and worker-safety laws. Today, the country is facing a decision point as significant as any of those: Will “soul-less global corporations” with trillions of dollars in capital and no loyalty to any one country be allowed to continue buying influence in politics and elections? He believes this question can only be resolved with a constitutional amendment.
But can communities scattered around the United States achieve something this ambitious?
Members of Congress will need to hear from their constituents if the amendment is to get the required two-thirds majority of both houses. Three-quarters of state legislatures will have to act, too. None of this will happen unless people from all over the country press their representatives to take action. Clements believes that could be accomplished within a decade.
And Turner agrees. Citizen leaders can make this happen, she said. “The heart and soul of this country, the push towards justice, generation after generation, has always started at the grassroots.”
Sarah van Gelder is a co-founder and columnist at YES!, founder of PeoplesHub, and author of The Revolution Where You Live: Stories from a 12,000-Mile Journey Through a New America.