Simultaneous inflation and recession are whipsawing Americans, coupling the present reality of diminished purchasing power with the future threat of increasing unemployment.
But for Big Business, these twin scourges of the ailing economy are a golden opportunity to wriggle free of the restraints imposed by government regulation. Environmental protection and anti-monopoly restrictions are among the main targets of the corporations' attacks.
Their tactics are to depict the enforcement of laws designed to protect consumers as burden-some expenses that fuel inflation and threaten the continued operation of some business.
Playing on the public's fear of continued inflation and deep recession, Big Business is trying to muzzle Uncle Sam's most aggressive federal watchdog, the Federal Trade Commission, by systematically stripping it of jurisdiction over one industry after another. Pollution controls enacted by the Environmental Protection Agency must be relaxed, we're told, to keep factories open and save energy.
The supposed conservative, anti-government "climate" of the country is being exploited by Big Business in an attempt to undo a decade of consumer-protection legislation. Get the government off our backs, the corporate fat cats say, and the economy will soon straighten itself out.
In the midst of this drive to dismantle federal controls, a coalition of public-interest, labor, environmental and church groups has risen to the defense of consumer protection. The vehicle for this counterattack is the sardonically named "Big Business Day" on April 17.
Its organizers hope to remind the public that it bears the burden of inflation while Big Business continues to roll up profits. What's needed, they argue, is greater democracy in the board rooms of American industry.
Corporate America is lashing out vigorously at the backers of Big Business Day as impertinent meddlers and left-wing zealots.
Aside from the publicizing of corporate corruption, what Big Business is most upset about is the April 17 coalition's proposals for halting such shenanigans by legislation. The consumer activists, who include Ralph Nader and John Kenneth Galbraith, have drafted a "Corporate Democracy Act of 1980" that would, they feel, bring some much-needed accountability into the board rooms of Big Business.
A U.S. Chamber of Commerce publication characterizes this proposed legislation as a "Corporate Destruction Act," claiming that it would "tinker with corporate boards" and "restrict corporations from closing failing plants."
Although recognizing that the proposals would apply only to corporations with $250 million in assets or more than 5,000 employees, the chamber warns in near-hysteria that "it's probably just the first step toward gaining more control over business of all sizes."
Another feature of the April 17 agenda that has Big Business worried is the coalition's intention to publish a list of corporations the critics feel are irresponsible, cataloging the firms' illegal and anti-consumer activities. The coalition plans to appoint "shadow" boards of directors to act as consumer watchdogs over these corporate culpits.
A Chamber of Commerce spokesman said that no counter-demonstrations are planned on April 17, although some private, free-enterprise groups are promoting an observance called "Growth Day."
Asked about "crime in the suites," the spokesman answered my associate Jack Mitchell with another question: "What about union racketeering and pension fund irregularities?"
The spokesman also insisted that the major corporations have already democratized their board structures to a great extent and noted that the chamber has set up a white-collar crime panel and an "ethics resource center" as self-policing measures.
Pro-business representatives also took issue with allegations that big business dominates political campaign financing by noting that several big unions give more to candidates than the largest corporate political action committees contribute.