April 15, 2020

Corporate campaigning during the COVID-19 pandemic, part 1

Corporate Accountability organizers stand up to PMI at its annual shareholders meeting, and hold signs outside the NYC public library.

Welcome to a special blog series by Executive Director Patti Lynn, exploring the meaning and importance of taking on corporate power in this moment. Don’t miss part 2part 3, and part 4.

I’m writing this from my bedroom-turned-office, thinking about the many layers of distress triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. Each of us is not only dealing with the fear of how the disease will impact us, but we are also witnessing and experiencing the failure of our systems to adequately respond.

In particular, I’ve been grappling with what this moment could mean for those of us committed to envisioning, building, and birthing a different kind of world. When I came across this quote in an article by Arundhati Roy (via adrienne maree brown), it deeply resonated with me and gave me a useful way into thinking about Corporate Accountability’s work right now:

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew.

This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

I’m thinking about how our mission and campaigns might help us walk more lightly through the portal. How our campaigns can help rid us of the baggage we should not take with us and how they are part of the fight for a world as beautiful as we can imagine.

Brutal systems laid bare

What is the baggage that we must leave behind? Simply put, we cannot take through the portal the current economic system as it is with all its inequities. The COVID-19 pandemic has made clear (if it wasn’t already) that the corporate-driven, brutal, extractive economic system prioritizes some people’s lives over others. Those who are on the frontlines of this health and economic crisis are people across the Global South, Black and Indigenous people and people of color, low income and working people, and most particularly those at the intersections of some or all of these identities. In the U.S., for example, Black people are dying at alarmingly disproportionate rates.

The examples of the impacts are wide-ranging and global, but here are just a few: In the U.S., some children who get free lunches at school are going hungry. Gig and hourly workers must choose between showing up to work and endangering themselves and their loved ones or not making rent. Healthcare workers put themselves at risk to care for those with COVID-19 without proper protective gear because profit-run hospitals have cut back to the bone. In Italy, the austerity measures imposed over the past few decades have also decimated their healthcare system, now overwhelmed by COVID-19. In India, millions of workers in urban centers have suddenly lost their jobs and have been forced to walk back to their villages for days on end with little food and water. In South Africa, homeless men were rounded up and locked up in a soccer stadium.

None of us should be particularly surprised that this is what is happening. For decades, both in the U.S. and globally, transnational corporations and the people behind them have driven a racist ideology that advances corporate interests above the wellbeing of people, the planet, and democratic institutions. As Nancy MacLean , Tetet Lauron, and others have documented, our public institutions and safety networks have been systematically bled dry for many decades in the service of an ideology that relies on and exploits systemic racism, designed to disempower the majority  in order to consolidate power in the hands of a few wealthy white men.

Corporations have co-opted political systems to advance a profit-driven and racist agenda that undercuts governments and public institutions and relies on exploitation of workers and the environment, trampling of human rights, and treating too many people as disposable and irrelevant. The COVID-19 pandemic has ripped back the curtain to starkly reveal the devastating outcomes of this ideology in practice.

Catalyzing massive transformation

The way forward, then, from this moment, is not to go back to how things were, but to activate our radical imaginations to envision the great and necessary change we need—and then work to make that change a reality. The good news is, we are ready for this work.

As Naomi Klein recently said:

“We need to catalyze a massive transformation to an economy that is based on protecting life. … We are in a better position than we were in 2008 and 2009 [during the last financial crisis]. We have done a lot of work as social movements in the intervening years to have people’s platforms. And now needs to be a moment of maximum confidence, of maximum commitment to push those ideas forward. To demand them, to be willing to disrupt for them.”

That’s exactly what we are doing in this moment at Corporate Accountability.

We are advancing our allies’ and our ideas and platforms: pushing, demanding, and organizing to turn the ideas into reality. We are in deep conversations with allies, many lead by Black and Indigenous people and people of color, about how our movements and campaigning need to center justice, advance transformation, and end white supremacy.

At the same time, we are keeping our mission as our guiding light: to stop transnational corporations from devastating democracy, trampling human rights, and destroying our planet. If unchecked corporate power is at the root of the economic system failing too many people, then holding corporations accountable is critical to creating the change we need.

Every day, we are caring for ourselves and each other, and we are showing up to organize our hearts out. We know that each large and small campaign victory in this moment will bring us closer to transforming our economy from one that gives corporations murderous and unaccountable power to an economy grounded in care for each other and the Earth, racial and economic justice, and liberation.

Part 2: How we, in partnership with our allies and members, are advancing our mission in this moment. 

Part 3:  Two important relief funds that are supporting workers on the front lines of this crisis.

Part 4: Global corporate campaigning in the pandemic, with dispatches from Nigeria and India.

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