Demonstrators Make Presence Felt at Shareholder Meetings

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April 25, 2012; Source: Investor’s Business Daily

When the press debates whether the Occupy Wall Street movement has run its course and petered out into a frisson of sui generis protests, it might do better to look at the change in the way our society—and in fact western societies—are approaching specific issues. The NPQ Newswire has in the past discussed how Occupy changed the narrative about economic inequality, prompting governments, foundations, and operating nonprofits to rethink positions, policies, and programs. For instance, witness New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s changing course on the millionaires tax (discussed in the NPQ Newswire here and here.

More recently, the business community has begun to directly feel the changing nature of the discourse as shareholders have turned on corporate CEOs. Citicorp’s CEO found shareholders voting down (on an advisory basis) his new compensation package and now a third of Barclay’s shareholders are set to reject the CEO compensation proposal of that British banking behemoth. Likewise, the shareholders of Johnson and Johnson have been sending signals of dissatisfaction with the J&J board and the company’s CEO salary package. Are the sinking fortunes of corporate CEO salaries and corporate board reelection numbers a sign of the success of the Occupy movement, even if the corporations don’t have Occupy protesters being evicted from shareholder meetings by dark-suited security men?

Related to Occupy, and a follow-up to the 99% Spring training efforts, the 99% Power movement has been conducting a series of nonviolent direct action events at corporate shareholders’ meetings, as this is the season for shareholders. In Detroit, where city fathers have been careful to cultivate a positive image with the business sector, protesters converged on the General Electric shareholders’ meeting and called the big corporation to task for its distinctive ability to circumvent federal taxes. Detroit Deputy Mayor Kirk Lewis called the GE protests an “unfortunate situation.”

Even more visible than the GE protests were the “swarming” protesters at the annual shareholders’ meeting of Wells Fargo in San Francisco. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that some 2,000 people representing the 99% Power coalition, labor unions, immigrant rights groups, and others showed up at the Wells Fargo western headquarters and blocked entrances. Some of those arrested were protest-sympathetic Wells investors who made it into the shareholders’ meeting itself, and ultimately caused the company to cut the meeting short. Next on tap for the 99% Power group, at least in the financial sector, is the May 6th Bank of America shareholders’ meeting.

These protests have gotten under the skin of the corporate sector. Investor’s Business Daily referred to the protestors as “Obama’s Rent-a-Thugs.” A lot of the commentary in many pro-corporate articles is that these social movement protestors are really being directed and funded by the unions. There is no question that the companies are discomfited by direct action protests rather than the usual shareholder resolutions that most corporate CEOs and boards fend off regularly—to the point that Wells identified the protests as a “risk factor” in its business model.

Like the Occupy Wall Street movement, the question is what do the 99% Power protestors want or expect of the shareholder meetings? They can vote against CEO compensation packages, they can register votes against board members, and they can call out ostensibly bad or unpopular business practices such as some of the banks’ foreclosure practices. But do they have an end-game in mind? Do they have explicit, corporate-specific demands? And are they coordinating with the nonprofits and foundations that have, for many years, been carrying the onus on progressive corporate shareholder resolutions?—Rick Cohen