I have something scary to tell you: Corporations control your rights on the job.

For instance, Congress enacted the Civil Rights Act of 1991 and the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 only because a critical number of large corporations gave those laws their blessings. Corporations do this through groups like the Conference Board, which is a lobbying organization for large corporations. Although other corporate lobbying organizations like the National Association of Manufacturers opposed these laws, general corporate support was essential to their passage. It doesn't matter whether workers need the benefits of a particular law, such as family leave. Congress will only grant new workplace rights with the approval of corporate America, which is the cash cow that funds nearly all of the election campaigns of Congressional incumbents.

Although corporations can sometimes reach a general consensus to extend workplace rights in a limited area, like family leave, corporations are unwilling to permit broad-based intrusions into corporate prerogatives regarding benefits, pay, and employment. That is why there's been no meaningful labor law reform since Congress passed the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947. Corporations pretty much have workers and their unions right where they want them: With the scales of justice tipped heavily in favor of employers.

In the few areas where the law favors workers and unions, however, the corporations have demanded reforms to take away those rights. For instance, corporations have pressed for labor law changes to outlaw salting, which is the use of paid unionists to organize non-union shops on the job. Corporations also want Congress to gut the provision of the National Labor Relations Act that bans company dominated unions. Corporations know that, if they can set up employer-dominated committees, they can fool their employees into believing they have real bargaining leverage on the job and don't need a real union. Corporations have also lobbied Congress heavily for changes in the Fair Labor Standards Act, which requires employers to pay minimum wages and time and a half for overtime hours worked in any one week. Corporations want to be able to pay employees with "comp time" (hours off work with pay later) rather than cash in the next pay period. This would increase corporate profits and short employee pay checks. Corporations also want to be able to average work hours over a two week period rather than having to calculate overtime each week. Again, this is just a ploy to cut employee wages.

Corporations also exercise their power in state legislatures. This is also why non-union employers remain free to fire employees at will, with or without cause. Corporations do not want to give up their discretion to get rid of employees unjustly, and they lobby state legislatures heavily to defeat proposed legislation to require that employers have a good reason for firing an employee. In Missouri, for instance, such legislation has been introduced each legislative session for the last several years, and the corporations have successfully lobbied to defeat the bills each time..

Not only do corporations effectively control labor laws in this country, they are increasingly controlling elections through vast campaign contributions to candidates and to supposed issue oriented advertising campaigns. This is warping the fabric of American democracy. In 1998, corporate America gave nearly $300 million to Republican candidates and the organizations who support them. In Missouri, corporate interests routinely finance slick advertising campaigns, such as those used to pass the gambling boats in moats amendment and to defeat restrictions on billboards. And right here in Kansas City, corporate Kansas City has been the most significant donor in the efforts to defeat light rail. Whether these candidates and issues have merit or not, the vast amount of corporate finance going into these campaigns is reason to pause and reflect on the direction of American democracy.

Corporations are also often lawless. Everyday, the Wall Street Journal, the paper of record for corporate America, details many examples of corporate law breaking. But the corporations rarely pay a significant price for their actions. Right here in Kansas City, for example, Hilton Hotel Corp. reached an agreement with the United States Attorney to pay a $655,000 fine to resolve possible criminal charges related to $250,000 the corporation paid to Elbert Anderson allegedly to reward him for his help in securing a prime location for the local Hilton casino. Do you really believe that a fine of a few hundred thousand dollars will have a deterrent effect on the behavior of a huge corporation like Hilton?

By the barest of margins, the Supreme Court has recently upheld modest campaign finance reform laws capping contributions and banning political party contributions to candidates, but these laws may be too little, too late.

At the turn-of-the-century Progressives, Populists, and others were concerned about the power of runaway corporations. It is time for regular Americans to reign in corporations by electing leaders to do the will of the people rather than the will of the corporations.