Eminent Domain as tool for American Labor

I heard an interview with this professor Peter Ranis from CUNY, explaining his idea that towns or states could use "eminent domain" laws to take abandoned factories away from corporations who were outsourcing jobs, and give the factory back to the workers and/or the community.

Eminent Domain: Unused Tool for American Labor?
(from WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labor and Society, Volume 10, June 2007)

The deindustrialization of America with the concomitant loss of decent paying jobs, the rise of unemployment, and the increasing poverty among the working class requires a novel response. The challenges of “free trade,” globalization and international competition and technological change are all threatening the viability of the labor movement in the U.S. The use of eminent domain offers a meaningful tool that can be implemented to counter this trend. Eminent domain has been legally used and constitutionally sanctioned for community, infrastructure, and development purposes. The time is ripe for a broad-based coalition of legislatures, community interests, labor unions, and social movements to promote the use of eminent domain
to expropriate with compensation enterprises in danger of being abandoned and moved offshore by their owners. Decisions by the owners of enterprises have repercussions and societal externalities that legitimize the rights to regulate them by way of eminent domain on behalf of the public interest. Workers in cooperatives in both the U.S. and throughout the world have shown that they can run factories and enterprises without owners and managers if given the necessary financial and legal wherewithal.

I was disgusted by the Kelo case where they took people's homes away to develop a mall or some project. But Ranis makes an excellent case. The whole purpose of eminent domain has always supposedly been to improve a community, and the courts uphold it when towns or communities can argue that houses have become "blighted" or when building a mall or park or business can create jobs or improve the community. The worst abuses of eminent domain seem to be when the value is mainly going to some corporation, and barely or tangentially helping the community. Think of almost any stadium that has been built with tax dollars and depended on "condemning" homes nearby or taking homes or property through eminent domain. The profit from those things mainly go to team owners.

Ranis argues that taking factories from corporations that close them in order to move jobs overseas, is exactly the kind of thing that eminent domain could do to help the community, and to discourage offshoring and outsourcing from US companies that are considering it.

At the same time, the gut reaction that most of us have against eminent domain is mainly a matter of individuals having their homes taken away by the city or state. Ranis is talking about taking commercial property, not anyone's home. Also I think that eminent domain, when used fairly, is somewhere along a slippery slope that most people already accept in some ways. Most Americans already grudgingly approve of our wealth being redistributed through taxes and social services. Obviously eminent domain can be abused just like taxes can be abused or corrupted, but maybe eminent domain could be applied in a way that would redistribute wealth as effective as some of the services that our taxes pay for.

I'm nowhere near as confident as Ranis that this could ever come to pass, but it sounds like a fair idea. I'd love to see some radical community to try it and see how far they can get.

As Joseph William Singer writes, "There should be a normative commitment to recognizing social obligations of property ownership to protect fundamental needs of the community. The most wealthy and powerful owners–the large corporations that control economic life in a community– should have the greatest obligations . . . We have good reasons of equality, democracy and community, as well as efficiency, to redefine property rights to redistribute power from corporate managers to workers and their communities . . . Plant closings should be regulated to protect the interests of the workers in relying on their relationship with the company, to make more equal–therefore more democratic–the power relationship between the workers and the company, to force the corporate managers to take into account the externalities of any decision to close the plant; and to alleviate the social harm caused by the plant closing while allowing desirable economic change to occur."


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