Oxfam's private sector department has a sophisticated understanding of corporate power in the US and around the world. The real work is figuring out best strategies to expose, challenge, and possibly work with giant corporations.
Mary Babic: Irit, one of the things that distinguishes Oxfam is that it aims at understanding, exposing, and challenging the systems of power and politics that have created our current landscape of inequality and poverty. Key to that sophisticated approach is our work around the private sector; and key to that is the deep understanding of corporate power, and how it operates. That’s your department (literally).
Again in 2023, Oxfam is releasing the annual inequality report (Survival of the Richest); and again, we’re calling out the incessant increase in inequality, as well as the remedy of bigger, better taxation of the ultrawealthy and corporations. I have to say, corporations come off as pretty villainous in this year’s report, and in a lot of our work, so I welcome your perspective.
Some questions for you as we face a new year still full of the many crises that are sending millions into poverty, and a few others over to the super yacht dock and private plane lot.
To begin, as long as the system is set up to put shareholders first, is it possible for businesses to make better choices?
Irit Tamir: Businesses can and do make better choices every day, but these are often one-off situations, or driven by a sustainability team or leader with an internal drive to do so. What big business is unable to do in our current system is to consider other stakeholders for the long-term as equal to shareholders.
But business created this system… They lobbied to make sure that all other counterbalances-like government, consumers, and workers-would be unable to hold them accountable; so we are left with a system where only shareholders matter now.
Mary Babic: So how can we bring pressure to bear on corporations to change? What tools are available to us? The tactics used in the past–boycotts, strikes, legislation–seem almost quaint in light of overwhelming corporate control of our lives today.
Irit Tamir: Well, I do think strikes and organizing of workers are coming back with a force and having a real impact. We are seeing unionization numbers rise, which is exactly how we come back to realigning the balance between stakeholders of big business. We have also seen more efforts to tax corporations, and this administration seems to be devoted to enforcing long unenforced anti-trust rules.
In terms of how civil society can pressure corporations, at Oxfam we utilize many tools—from name-and-shame campaigns, to shareholder advocacy, to direct engagement and even partnership when companies are really looking to change.
Mary Babic: Do you think the increase in union activity in the last couple years can start to redress the balance of power toward workers? While we’ve definitely seen a new wave in organizing, and in moves to strike, unions are still far from rebuilding to their peak (50 years ago, nearly a third of US workers belonged to a union; today, it's one in ten). Can unions effectively fight the relentless and often pernicious attempts to stifle organizing and collective bargaining?
Irit Tamir: Well as we know, the rules are not on the side of unions and workers these days. So-called “right-to-work” laws have eroded unionization, and business has been very effective in making sure that nothing passes at the federal level to counter that. That said, the organizing and interest of this new generation in unionizing is what we need to fight back.
Mary Babic: Do you have thoughts about how we fight the political capture of our legislators by the ultrawealthy and corporations? Since, roughly, the Reagan years, corporations and the ultrawealthy have invested billions of dollars in getting their candidates elected, and getting favorable laws passed, and it’s worked far too well.
Irit Tamir: We have to win the ground game. At the end of the day, voters need to make sure that the legislators who’ve been bought by big business are no longer in office. We need to expose the system in a way that makes it real for the lives of everyday people—who work hard, pay taxes and want a future for their children.
We need to ask why anyone making minimum wage is supporting legislators who have voted against raising it. What is the disconnect that prevents people in low-wage jobs from voting in their own economic self-interest? We need to understand that tension, and crack the code.
Mary Babic: Given the heritage of structural racism and slavery in this country, how can we get corporations to do more to make significant changes? It’s one thing to craft happy commercials with a multi-racial family enjoying game night; it’s another to actually raise wages for workers at the bottom, approve small business loans in Black communities, stop red-lining. Corporations continue to profit from a permanent underclass of workers, largely trapped there by race and gender. How do we call that out?
Irit Tamir: Our system of capitalism prioritizes capital and encourages the exploitation of resources and labor. We lose jobs because corporations circle the globe for the lowest cost labor and natural resource extraction, where there are even fewer rules. Until we make labor and natural resources a true cost of doing business and value it appropriately, I don’t think this will fundamentally change. We need the rules to change.
Mary Babic: Do you think we can do anything to stop the pandemic profiteering that has resulted in increased poverty, hunger, and inequality? Inflation is not only real, it’s worst for basic goods and services-which means that it’s having a wildly disproportionate impact on households that can least afford it. Moreover, it is caused in no small part by corporations that are making the CHOICE to raise prices. It’s shocking we can’t do more to prevent this, please help.
Irit Tamir: The way to discourage this kind of price gouging and phantom inflation is to tax the windfalls from it in the short run. But, in the long run we need more ways to hold corporations accountable—from having more stakeholders represented on corporate boards to government oversight to unionization and consumer protection.
Mary Babic: Okay, our last question is this: What’s giving you hope right now? Something or someone who’s inspiring you to keep on doing the right thing?
Irit Tamir: What is giving me hope is the new conversation that is happening in progressive spaces about a new economic model for the future.
In some ways, our society is more divided, but in other ways, I’m seeing conversations happening that would have been unthinkable just five years ago. Talking about dismantling shareholder primacy wasn’t even something Oxfam would have said several years ago. The dominos are starting to fall… we just need it to happen faster.