Debating the Community Values Act

The Olympian editorial board attacks the Act; Olympia ReclaimDemocracy.org organizer responds

First published by The Olympian, Sept 13, 2005

By The Olympian Editorial board

There is a small group of people in South Sound who want cities to begin grading private businesses and close down those companies that don’t live up to community expectations. Council members in Tumwater and Olympia should give the folks from Reclaim Democracy a hearing, then promptly move on to more pressing community issues.

David Schaffert, president and chief executive officer of the Thurston County Chamber of Commerce, said his job of recruiting new businesses is hard enough without ridiculous attempts to control lawful companies.

“There are people in this community with strong opinions who want to social engineer the free enterprise system,” Schaffert said. “I think it’s a small group of people, but they tend to be very vocal. And they tend to be very good at being vocal. But they are giving our community a black eye.” Schaffert is right.

The push for a Community Values Act is offered by a core group of about 15 people under the Reclaim Democracy banner. Their goal is to have the city councils in Tumwater and Olympia adopt ordinances that would grade corporations on everything from paying a living wage to how much money they pump back into the local community.

Businesses would be scored on whether they discriminate against employees based on race, gender or age; violate overtime pay laws; don’t provide adequate medical benefits; violate environmental laws; or suppress or discourage workers from unionizing. Companies that pump at least 50 percent of their profits back into the community or turn private property into a public square would receive bonus points.

Under the proposal, those businesses that don’t measure up would have two months to leave town.

It’s a ludicrous proposal. First and foremost are the legal issues surrounding a community values ordinance. How can a company that is legally constituted under the laws of Washington state be denied a business license on something as subjective as whether it contributes enough money to employee medical benefits?

“I think when you have subjective policies that go against people’s constitutional rights, it’s not good for any community,” Schaffert said. “Our community wants to embrace diversity, yet when it comes to businesses, some people in this community want to put all businesses into ‘good’ or ‘bad’ categories based on subjective measures. How can that be legal?” Good question.

Then there’s the question of equity. The folks with Reclaim Democracy admit that the targets of their effort are the corporate giants such as Wal-Mart and McDonalds. They say they aren’t after the mom-and-pop operations. Isn’t that discriminatory? How can the community have one set of business values and not apply them equally to large and small companies? What happens to that small, start-up retail shop on Fourth Avenue that pays its three employees a minimum wage and doesn’t provide the three workers with a medical plan? Will that entrepreneur be forced out of business? What happens to the people who lose their jobs at the businesses that are forced to shutter their doors, and what about the customers who like shopping at Wal-Mart or prefer a McDonald’s burger and fries?

Council members should allow the proponents of the community values ordinance an opportunity to speak their mind and air their proposal. But council members should not waste staff time or city resources pursuing this feel-good measure that is unlawful, unworkable and just plain silly.

Community has a right to self-determination

By Susan Bee

Recently, The Olympian’s editorial board published an editorial “Jettison proposed ordinance,” opposing the community values ordinance proposed by ReclaimDemocracy.org’s Olympia chapter. The editorial is inaccurate and one sided; not surprising given it was written without input from Reclaim Democracy, yet repeatedly quotes local Chamber of Commerce representatives that oppose the ordinance.

The editorial asserts the community values ordinance is supported only by 15 super-vocal people. Not true. Had the board inquired, it would know the ordinance concept is supported by the Green Party of South Puget Sound, the Thurston County chapter of Amnesty International and 200 local citizens.

The editorial featured chamber complaints that attracting new businesses to town is hard without local attempts to “socially engineer the free enterprise system” in a way that violates corporations’ constitutional rights by discriminating against bad-actor corporations.

Let’s discuss this loaded and inaccurate statement.

Socially engineer: I suppose the chamber would say the New Deal imposed a socialist economic order on America. The New Deal did, after all, socially engineer the free market. New Deal programs, like Social Security, are with us today because Americans rejected pure capitalism and market populism. They want a market-based system infused with humanity and they want a democracy that is citizen-based, not corporate based. That is what the community values ordinance is about — beginning to level the playing field between big corporations, like Wal-Mart, and small local businesses that are driven under by Wal-Mart and abandoned by the chamber.

The chamber’s abandonment of local business — and local citizens — is clear. The chamber advocates for multinational businesses interests before all branches and levels of government. It’s lobbied for NAFTA and CAFTA, which hurt small businesses and send good U.S. jobs overseas. In a class-action sex-discrimination lawsuit against Wal-Mart, the chamber filed a legal brief opposing certification of a class of 1.5 million plaintiffs, arguing the certification “risks summarily stripping businesses of their right to defend themselves.”

Because the chamber’s record is one of siding with big business over small business and citizens, the board should have interviewed local citizens and local small business associations before criticizing the community values ordinance and Reclaim Democracy as being “silly” and “ludicrous.”

Free market: In the context of dealing with companies like Wal-Mart, the chamber’s free-market advocacy seems disingenuous. Reclaim Democracy supports the free market and a citizen-based government. Wal-Mart fears both. To out-compete small businesses by rolling back prices, many large companies also roll back workers rights by implementing zero-tolerance union policies, paying sub-living wages, illegally cheating employees out of overtime pay and using child labor.

To boot, Wal-Mart gets huge government subsidies, receiving $1 billion from state and local governments since 1980.

Free market? What local company gets this perk while delivering nothing more than poverty-wage, part-time, and no-health care jobs? While wealthy corporations preach the free market, they don’t practice it themselves.

The editorial states the community values ordinance is too subjective. But, the ordinance uses objective, concrete criteria and a structured point system: A set number of points deducted for (1) frequency of violating the nation’s labor and environmental laws and (2) percentage of employees on welfare with no health care.

Similarly, it allocates a set number of bonus points for (1) allowing leafleting on company property and (2) pumping 50 percent of profits to the local economy by hiring local employees, investing and banking locally, and purchasing locally manufactured goods. The company either does these things, objectively, or not.

Determining whether covered corporations act consistently with our community values will be straight forward using these objective criteria and the structured scoring system.

The only legitimate point made is that covered corporations with substandard scores (in the annual reapplication process) get six months to reform or must move two months later. As this could be harsh to employees, creatively rewriting this portion is pragmatic.

As the editorial points out, this is an issue of equity. In America, we value equity — if you work hard, play by the rules, and serve your family and community, your community will support you — economically and otherwise. In 50 years, Reclaim Democracy wants a community of supported and economically prospering citizens who stood up for their right of self-determination and who prevented the community’s wealth from being vacuumed out and sent to silk-lined executive pockets in Bentonville, Arkansas.

Susan Bee was the president of ReclaimDemocracy.org Olympia Chapter, sponsors of the proposed Community Values Act, at the time of writing.