Bedeviled by losses on Capitol Hill, at the bargaining table and in the marketplace, a number of labor unions and consumer groups have started exploring a common strategy for curbing what they perceive as mounting corporate power in America.
Although the talks are described as preliminary, possibilities under discussion include sweeping legislation -- some of it patterned after the 1959 Landrum-Griffin Act's curbs on union power and abuses -- to impose "social accountability" on corporate behavior.
Even some participants concede the times could hardly be less auspicious for such a venture, noting that Congress, increasingly more responsive to business concerns than labor and consumer causes, only last year rejected a consumer protection agency and killed a relatively modest labor law "reform" bill.
But frustration is so intense, especially among labor unions, that problems once shunned as businesses' business, not labor's, are being actively explored -- including "white-collar" crime, "runaway" corporations and their impact on abandoned communities, corporate mergers, campaign fund-raising through business political action committees and corporate accountability to stockolders, workers and the public.
"It's just not happened before," said Mark Green, director of Congress Watch, one of Ralph Nader's consumer groups. "For the first time in my experience, labor and consumer groups are working together in a shared belief that giant corporations are unaccountable to workers, shareholders, the marketplace or the states that charter them and something should be done about it," Green added.
Implicit in the probing for a coalition effort is a concession by labor, at least, that the corporations have the unions on the run.
Green has been working closely with Victor Kamber of the AFL-CIO and Jules Bernstein, a lawyer for the Laborers' union, in a coordinating role for a larger but still informal group of about 20. At one time or another, this group has included representatives of the United Auto Workers, International Association of Machinists and several other large unions, the National Consumers League, the (House) Democratic Study Group, the Congressional Black Caucus, at least one women's group, and staff assistants to several senators, according to one of the group's coordinators.
The group plans to continue its discussions, possibly branching out to include other groups, and probably will have some legislative proposals to make during the current session of Congress, Green said.
While the AFL-CIO has not given its blessing to the effort, it took a big plunge into the subject of corporate accountability at the midwinter meeting of its executive Council in Florida earlier last month.
Accusing corporations of assuming "a dominance over society, the economy and the government never intended by the laws," the council called for "active consideration" of eight proposals before Congress.
These include measures to strengthen penalties for corporate wrongdoing and consumer fraud, prohibit large corporate mergers, provide for a study of news media concentration, increase controls over lobbying activities, require prior notice for plant relocations and force oil companies to give up other energy holdings.
But the council, in an apparent signal it was willing to go farther, said, "these bills and perhaps more sweeping measures are necessary to assure that corporations are confined to their proper economic role and forced to meet their social responsibilities."
AFL-CIO President George Meany, commenting on the council's action, raised the idea of extending the Landrum-Griffin Act to corporations by requiring management consultants who specialize in helping companies fight unions to "register under Landrum-Griffin as agents of corporations."
But, at the same time, Meany indicated the depth of labor's troubles on Capitol Hill by conceding it lacks the votes to pass last year's labor law revision package in the current session and will seek only to pass some of its less volatile sections on a piecemeal basis.
The idea of broadening Landrum-Griffin, to corporations -- remote as it may seem politically these days -- has a kind of poetic justice fascination for union officials. The law passed in the wake of congressional hearings exposing union wrongding in the late 1950s, put reins on union expenditures, required extensive public disclosure of financial dealings, regulated union elections, provided for trusteeship of errant unions and generally took aim at corruption, undemocratic practices and extra-legal behavior.
"They (businessmen) keep telling us the law's so great," complained one union representative who favors a corporate Landrum-Griffin bill. "Well, if it's all that good for us, why shouldn't it be good for them, too?"
A working paper drafted by one of the leading participants suggests a "Corporate Reform Act" that would set forth the rights of shareholders and employes, require annual disclosure of financil operations, create a governmental "Department of Corporate Control" to oversee business compliance with federal laws and seek court orders for temporary trusteeship of violators until they can be "rehabilitated and returned to shareholder control," write rules for voting on corporate officers, directors and referenda and include "public responsibilities" among corporate fiduciary responsibilities.
It would make a federal crime out of corporate bribery, fraud and other offenses. Corporate political activity would be curtailed, and impact analyses would have to be made before plants could be closed.
While legislation is unlikely to go that far, some other participants said, the proposals illustrate what might be done if Landrum-Griffin strictures were applied to corporations.
One labor participant suggested that even a modest bill might provide the ticket for hearings to pur the same spotlight on corporations that the celebrated McClellan labor racheteering hearings produced for unions 20 years ago -- with Landrum-Griffin as the result.