October 2004: Exposing and Opposing Corporate Power

Regardless of the outcome, the cause itself is worth the struggle
October 1, 2004

My first brush with corporate power happened a long  time ago, when I was editor of the daily newspaper The Western Star in Corner Brook, Newfoundland.

Corner Brook was—still is—a paper mill town. At the time, the mill was the world’s largest, owned by the big British corporation Bowater’s.

I was appalled, after taking over the editorial post, to learn that Bowater’s had been exempted from all provincial taxes. The company had also been given logging rights to vast tracts of land without ever having to pay a cent in royalties or stumpage fees. It wasn’t even compelled to pay any municipal tax, even though it was by far the largest property owner in the city. It made an in-lieu-of-tax contribution to the city, but at a mill rate (no pun intended) far below that assessed on other residents.

In effect, Bowater’s had been given the freedom to exploit the island’s forest resources with no reciprocal obligation other than to provide some jobs for loggers and paper mill workers. And the number of those jobs was steadily declining as the company proceeded to automate and mechanize its operations.

In one of my many editorials blasting the company’s tax-exempt status, I asked sarcastically if Bowater’s would still be allowed this free ride even if eventually it employed only one person to push a button every morning. I kept churning out my indignant editorials for several months, to absolutely no effect. I was the proverbial voice crying in the wilderness of political indifference and civic apathy.

At a city hall ceremony, I bumped into the mill manager, Monty Lewin. “Well, Finn,” he said teasingly, “how much longer are you going to waste our best newsprint running your inane editorials?”

“As long as necessary,” I said.

“As long as you’re the editor, you mean.”

“You think I won’t be the editor much longer?”

Lewin grinned. “My associates want me to have you sacked, which I could easily do, but I told them that would only make a martyr of you—and besides, nobody is paying the slightest attention to your rants, so why should we worry?”

He was wrong about nobody reading my editorials, but right about nobody with any authority heeding them. The provincial politicians ignored me, and the city councillors, though privately sharing my frustration, didn’t dare challenge the community’s largest employer.

A few years later, Bowater’s was challenged effectively by a labour union, the International Woodworkers of America (IWA), which organized the company’s underpaid and mistreated loggers, and those of the other big paper firm in the province, the Anglo-Newfoundland Development Company based in Grand Falls. Of course the companies refused to negotiate fairly, even rejecting a conciliator’s proposed modest settlement and forcing the union to go on strike.    

So powerful was the companies’ political influence that Premier Joey Smallwood, a professed socialist who had formerly worked as a labour organizer, was induced to break the strike. He decertified the union and expelled it from the province. The great Toronto Star editorial cartoonist, Duncan MacPherson, brilliantly depicted Smallwood’s betrayal of the loggers, showing Joey seated on a throne under the banner “Better to Rule with Management than Serve with Labour.”

The companies finally disposed of my editorial nuisance during the strike, pressuring the paper’s publisher to direct me to present only the companies’ side of the dispute and suppress anything favourable to the union. This constraint on journalistic principles left me and three of my editorial colleagues—if we were to retain our self-respect—with no option other than to hand in our resignations.

(Twenty years later, having harvested the most productive and accessible timber on the island, and having put its huge profits into building new mills in the southern U.S., Bowater’s simply abandoned its Corner Brook operations.)  

This exercise of business greed and brutality served to alert me to the social and economic dangers of excessive corporate power and turned me into something of a crusader against it when I later worked as an editor for several unions and for 14 years as a labour columnist with The Toronto Star. (The corporations didn’t like my Star column, and several times tried to persuade editor Martin Goodman to terminate it, but it wasn’t until after Martie’s tragic early death in 1982 that they managed to get me turfed out.)

If I thought the corporations wielded too much power in the mid-1900s, I have since seen that power expand enormously, to the point where they now effectively control the global economy and most governments. I recall Monty Lewin’s long-ago taunt that nobody was paying any attention to me—or later to the many other critics of corporate power who have since emerged with much greater eloquence and larger audiences than mine. But the fight for global social and economic justice has also swelled in scope and numbers that match the corporate surge. People are paying attention to us. They are becoming aware of the threat that corporate rule poses to their livelihood, their quality of life, their rights, and their environment.

I’m privileged today to be serving with the CCPA, an organization dedicated to exposing the many detrimental effects of corporate rule and to offering fair and workable alternatives. My message hasn’t changed all that much since my first encounter with a ruthless paper company half a century ago. (See Pages 8 & 9.) But the CCPA needs to reach more than its present 10,000 Canadians who generously support our work. You can do your bit by helping to increase our membership, and thus our influence. If every current member committed to bringing one additional person into the CCPA, we could double the contribution we collectively make to the struggle for a better world.      

(Ed Finn is the CCPA's Senior Editor. He can be reached at [email protected].)