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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Corporate Ultimatum

Call it the Corporate Ultimatum. That is what global corporations, technically domiciled in the United States, are confronting the American people with on a broad and cruel front.

Whether it is laying off workers, while vastly increasing the compensation of bosses, or demanding lower health, safety and environmental standards, or insisting on far lower taxes than individuals pay, these global merchants mouth the same pretext: to meet the global competition, all these lowered standards of living for Americans must occur.

About ten years ago, the New York law firm representing Lloyds of London, the foreign reinsurance giant, issued a list of about twenty demands for weakening our nation’s laws that given wrongfully injured people the legal right to hold their perpetrators of harm accountable in court. These rights represent the great common law tradition that makes manufacturers of defective products or toxics pay for their damage and the same for practitioners of medical malpractice. The not-so-veiled bluff was that, without such weakenings of the law, Lloyds would pull out of the United States.

More recently, NAFTA and GATT — the two autocratic systems of trade governance — was pushed through Congress by President Clinton who never seemed to care how depressive these Pacts were on U.S. health, safety and workplace conditions. He, his big business buddies and his Republican friends in Congress argued that subordinating these living standards (such as clean air, safer cars and food) to the supremacy of foreign commerce was necessary to keep up with the global competition of tomorrow. St. Kitts, the Caribbean island with 75,000 people, liked GATT; Clinton gave it and all other small member nations the exact equal vote in GATT’s World Trade Organization that the United States possesses.

Next time you hear the word “harmonization,” in the context of these trade agreements, run up a yellow alert flag. NAFTA and GATT have “harmonization” of member countries health and safety standards in a race to the bottom where the U.S. could never be first, as with air bags. The goal, driven by global companies, is “harmonization” downward and the crushing of federal, state and local initiatives in these areas as well as other important sectors such as procurement requirements to buy within the state and within the U.S.

Last month, U.S. auto companies announced they wanted to work with foreign car makers to harmonize safety standards. If the federal auto safety agency objects (unlikely in its present gutless state of passivity) by saying that there are federal safety laws here that are in charge, the auto companies will surely throw up “the global competition” ploy.

Another type of corporate ultimatum that is emerging comes from the giant health insurance companies, with their HMOs, and the hospital chains. Spreading their aura of inevitability by managed care (really often curtailed care), they have intimidated physician practices, community hospitals and even non-profit giants like Kaiser and some Blue-Cross firms in throwing in the towel.

“You can’t compete with us” is the message of the capital-rich insurance and hospital giants. “Surrender or sell out.” Many are doing just that only to find out that as physicians they are now hired hands, stripped of both their professionalism and their independence of judgment by managerial clerks who never see the patients whose care they are restricting and degrading.

The Justice Department’s antitrust division sits idly by watching these HMOs and their super-enriched bosses concentrate the health care industry with a bureaucratic corporatization unmatched anywhere.

What goes unnoticed is how our democracy is being dismantled by these corporate giants and their ultimatums. Both in their private power advantage over consumers and through their money influence over politicians, the law is being corporatized or turned into an instrument of oppression. You may not even know that your HMO or employer-based health insurance requires you to give up your legal rights and agree to compulsory arbitration in case you are abused or cheated and seek justice.

The now right-wing Brookings Institution, a Washington-based research group, is issuing a study by Pietro S. Nivola, called “Comparative Disadvantages? Domestic Social Regulation and the Global Economy.” Displaying a monetized mind, Nivola criticizes our country’s pollution control laws, our protections accorded injured people, our energy efficiency laws and even our community reinvestment laws to reduce banks redlining in lower income neighborhoods as impediments to global trade. Get the drift of the new despotism.

What’s next — get rid of America’s child labor laws so that companies here can compete with the child labor factory dungeons of India or Bangladesh. Big corporations are on a collision course with American democracy and more people are coming to that realization everyday.