Albion Monitor
Speech of Ralph Nader (St. Francis Church, Sacramento, CA) October 17, 1996
Part 1 of 6

The Moral Courage to Stand Against Injustice

Thank you for coming, especially thank you to those who have been raising the visibility of those international systems of autocratic government that have been undermining our democratic processes called NAFTA and GATT, about which we speak a little bit later.

The present campaign, led by TweedleDee, TweedleDum, Republican and Democrat, increasingly demonstrate that our political choices are becoming extraordinarily narrow, but even more important, that the narrowness of the choice itself reflects the increasing domination over both parties and our government of multinational corporations.

Corporations always quest for power. They don't just quest for market profits, they quest for power against all forces that might counteract them, whether it's government, law and order, regulatory agencies, whether it's trade unions, whether it's consumer groups, whether it's the churches, whether it's the environmental groups, or whether it's people who can take them to court and product liability and medical malpractice and financial fraud cases. In fact, much of the benefits that have come from corporations in our country's history have flowed precisely because they weren't allowed to follow the logical conclusion of their greed, the logical conclusion of their will to dominate, the logical conclusion to bringing consumers to their knees, and bringing government to its position as supplicant and welfare disperser to corporations.

And we often forget that because the corporations like to take credit for everything that happens to our economy, it's as if the workers didn't build this economy, as if the slaves didn't build the plantation economy, it's as if consumers didn't make it by their buying the products. Of course, everybody's involved and building an economy.

But what we must recognize, is that in any society -- and this goes right back to 2000 years ago -- any society that lets the profit-seeking mercantile value system dominate itself against other values of humanity -- justice, opportunity, health, safety, respect for future generations, the intangibles of civilization -- any society that allows the mercantile, the profit-seeking system to dominate gets into trouble.

That was described in the Bible, of course, and nothing is very much changed. And we have to learn this lesson every few generations. When slavery was a scar, the shame of our nation, a few people called themselves "abolitionists," started the drive to abolish slavery.

Slavery was the making of human beings into property owned by businesses, plantations owners, to maximize their profits and minimize their losses. They had no boundaries in those days to the prevention of slavery. And, you know, those citizens who started the abolition movement, it was pretty lonely, and they struggled for decades and they prevailed and our country's a lot better off as a result.

And the women who stood in that farmhouse in 1846 in Seneca Falls, New York -- and they started the national drive for women's right to vote and it wasn't just men who opposed that: businesses didn't like women's increasing protest against child labor and other exploitation. They didn't want to give women the right to vote.

Six women. Farmhouse. 1846. Pretty lonely. But they prevailed against overwhelming odds over the next 60 years. They were beaten, dragged off to jail, arrested, right in front of the White House on the eve of their final victory.

How about the workers in the early Industrial Revolution? Terrible working conditions, six, seven days a week. Pittance for salary. They didn't have pensions or unemployment compensation. They didn't have worker's compensation. They didn't have any voice. They were flotsam and jetsam.

I remember reading in my law books cases back in the mid and late 1800's when the railroads were getting underway, and there'd be thousands of deaths a year because trainmen would get between the cars, the railroad cars and try to couple them. And at that time, an inventor developed the automatic coupler, but the railroads didn't want to invest in the automatic coupler which didn't require a human being to risk being squeezed between two large railroad cars. Why? It was cheaper for those workers to die than it was for the railroad companies to invest in that new safety technology.

And those workers who were part of the sit-down strikes against the auto companies in the 30's before they formed the United Auto Workers and the detective goons were hired by the owners of the auto plants to harass and block them -- pretty lonely. And they prevailed.

The United Mine Workers was formed out of the blood, sweat and choking coal dust in the mines, some of the cruelest conditions in the history of our country, and the workers organized and before they were through, they had more safety in the mine and they had some of the highest wages of blue collar workers in the country with about the best health and pension plan. But it started out in the 1890's very, very lonely in the coal fields of West Virginia, and Pennsylvania and Kentucky. But they prevailed.

What do all these people have in common?

They have in common moral courage. They have in common self-confidence. They have in common the willingness to take on the odds, the unwillingness to say to themselves "you can't fight these powerful people. You can't fight these omnipotent corporations. You can't fight those odds." These are not people who went through life saying to themselves, "you can't fight City Hall", or you can't fight some big coal company or some big auto company. They fought and this country was a lot better as a result. They were not cynical people. They were not despairing people. They weren't people who wrung their hands. They weren't people who thought that being a dropout from democracy was cool or was some form of elegant indulgence or self-indulgence.

And sometimes we forget our history, especially the young generation that grew up on MTV and the new young generation that's growing up on Beavis and Butthead and watching and gazing at the worst kind of television that communicates violence as way of solving lives, low-grade sensuality from junk food to soft porn and addiction as a way of life, hour after hour, sitting, watching the videos, and watching the television and watching the kind of demeaning and intellectually stifling appropriation of the childhood of millions of youngsters.

They don't even know who the heroes were in our country any more. Their heroes are Chester Cheetah, Tony the Tiger, Power Rangers, Ninja Turtles. They don't inherit the stories from their ethnic background or their grandparents anymore. They don't inherit the stories that had the morals to them, from the books. They get it from the violent programming on television, or video, or now, computer screens, or down at the arcades. And now they're told they can participate in the slaughter directly through interactive video.

When you compare the history of struggle in the world for justice -- and "Justice is the great work of human beings on Earth," Daniel Webster once declared, and how right he was -- when you compare that kind of reality struggle with the virtual reality of sensual and violent exploitation of our youngsters by these commercial corporations who know no boundaries in their pell mell drive to separate children from their parents, teach the children how to lay the guilt trip on parents who are working and commuting and not at home as much as they would like to be and showing how these children can have corporate parents, commercial surrogate parents to fill their time and their loneliness with the commercial videos and programming that too many parents buy but never look at.

The first lesson of striving for justice is to look at the historical record. All of these examples I gave and many more have one theme through them: They took on concentrated power in too few hands and took away some of it. They deconcentrated some of it. They said to the slave-holding plantations, "No more are you going to have the power to hold whole families into slavery."

And the unions told the industrial corporations, "No more are you going to have the power to tell us what our working conditions are going to be and what our pay is going to be, and what our health and safety deterioration is going to be like. No more."

And the women who got the right to vote, same thing: deconcentrating and distribution power.

Once we understand that, and obviously all we need to do is just be refreshed in our memory, then we look at the problems today and we say to ourselves, why, oh why, do we, in a country of massive wealth, intelligence, science, technology, constitution; in a country that is reporting gigantic corporate profits, even more gigantic executive compensation packages for the bosses, and a record stock market day after day; why in the world do we have people -- 80 percent of the workers in this country with declining wages adjusted for inflation over the last 20 years -- anywhere from 15 to 20 percent decline, according to the U.S. Department of Labor data -- why in the world do 23 out of every 100 children in this country live in dire poverty with all the brutalization that that entails?

Why in the world are our public works, the basic public infrastructure that makes private profit possible, crumbling and decaying, from our bridges to our sewage systems, to our drinking water systems, to our schools, including our public universities?

Why in the world do we have 17 countries in the world who have lower infant mortality levels? Why are we the most, the only western country that doesn't have universal health insurance coverage with 42 million people, including children, uncovered, 20 million grossly under-covered, and the rest of the Americans who have coverage worrying sick about getting sick and losing their coverage, since as cancer survivors, and diabetic survivors, or losing their coverage when they change their jobs, or being told they have preexisting conditions like high blood pressure, heart disease or asthma, and therefore are excluded for insurance coverage for those ailments, and then they're beset increasingly with corporations drowning in their own profits, drowning in their own mega-millionaire executives telling the workers that they've got to engage in more co-payments for their health insurance, they've got to take more exclusions, they've got to take more deductions and they better lump it, because if they don't like it they can either leave, and if they decide not to leave and fight back, why, these bosses can threaten to close down the plant and threaten to go to Mexico or Malaysia, or East Asia or South America, encouraged by our tax system and encouraged by NAFTA and GATT?"

Now what's the answer to all those questions? Why? Why?

The answer is there is too much power and too much wealth in too few hands and the few control our government and the few create the problems and the injustices for the many and have less and less interest in doing anything about it because they can get away with it.

If you want to find out what corporations are able to get away with, go over the border in Texas to the maquilladora regions and you'll see those blue chip corporations like GM and Ford and some Japanese major corporations setting up shop, exploiting their workers -- there isn't even a living wage paid, especially now, given the inflation in Mexico -- the massive toxic, the pollution dumping, the bribery, the simple disregard for human rights, and they wouldn't dare do that in our country, although they're getting ideas that they can get away with it, they wouldn't dare do that in our country, but right across the border they do. Why?

Because they're nestling next to an oligarchy and a dictatorial regime that is full of corruption and needs only to be paid off in order to smash labor union organization and any kind of human rights and any kind of access to judicial justice. That's why.

You want to see how far corporations will go if we let them in this country? Look at the history of World War II, where going into World War II, General Motors and Dupont still had commercial deals and relationships with the giant German chemical company I.G.Farber, and with the Kruppworks and with the Nazi regime that was so intertwined with them. And there's plenty of documentation on that and even more coming out shortly in a major book on the subject.

If you want to see how they behave, go to Indonesia and see the Nike shoe subcontracted companies where for a $1.80 -- used to be $1.67 -- $1.80 a day, not a living wage, women are manufacturing Nike shoes. And they manufactured 19 million pairs in 1993 and all of their pay together, of all the women who manufactured all the shoes was less than what the chief executive officer of the Nike Corporation got that year.

The top 350 richest people in the world, their total wealth equals the bottom 3 billion people in the world. The disparity of wealth and income in our country has grown to historic extremes. It is now more widely disparate than in countries in western Europe, and we were way ahead of them in more equitable distribution of wealth and income. The bottom 90 percent of the American people, their total wealth is equal to the one to two percent of the richest people in America, depending on which study you want to rely on. Just imagine: 90 people here, all their wealth, one or two at the most people here equal the wealth of the 90 people here.

You know, if I described that without mentioning that it was in the good old USA, you would think it was in some third world country that we have contemptuously have called banana republics. But it's right here.

Take the stock equities that are booming now. They call it "people's capitalism. "Let's look at the record: the bottom 80 percent of the American people, including their pension stock holdings own 1.8 percent -- 1.8 percent, less than 2 percent of all stock equities. The top 5 percent of the richest people in this country own 77 percent. This is not healthy for our country. It's not good eventually for widely distributed markets. But who ever accused corporations of being farsighted?

Now comes their deliberate drive in the last 15 years in particular to basically bring our democracy to its knees by dismantling our democracy installment by installment.

One way they dismantle it is be increasing the power of their money in political campaigns. Seventy percent of all money poured into campaigns for Congress and for the Presidency come from business interest, 70 percent, that's one of the highest on record. It used to be that labor money would be a third of business money, or maybe half. It doesn't come close any more.
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Albion Monitor October 27, 1996 (

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