On the right, a rising passion for shareholder activism

Conservative groups aim for liberals’ successess

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David Ridenour, president of the National Center for Public Policy Research, meanwhile, trumpeted the center’s success at helping Exxon stand up to the liberals. The group also scored a few points at a Harley-Davidson meeting earlier this spring, but he conceded that the group’s first season attending 32 corporate shareholder meetings did not produce any breakthroughs in persuading other big-name corporations such as Home Depot, Merck and Kraft to back off stances they have taken in favor of progressive causes.

Conservatives admit that they are badly outnumbered by the cottage industry of liberal groups and activists who have been lobbying corporate America to kowtow to their social goals since the 1960s. The liberal penchant for rewarding or punishing corporations for the stands they take on social issues has turned what was once a rag-tag effort decades ago into a multitrillion-dollar social investment industry today.

The center was the only conservative group that had an active campaign in corporate boardrooms this year, though groups like the Competitive Enterprise Institute and Americans for Tax Reform also have voiced support for shareholder activism as a way to try to counteract the liberal influence in corporate boardrooms.

Conservative groups sponsored four shareholder resolutions during the 2013 proxy season, a figure swamped by the 365 initiatives submitted by liberal groups, according to the Sustainable Investments Institute. Mr. Ridenour said some of the resolutions he proposed were struck down by the Securities and Exchange Commission, while he agreed to withdraw some others after getting an audience with corporate executives.

Amy Ridenour, Mr. Ridenour’s wife and co-director of the center, admitted to the Washington Beacon that they got drubbed by liberals. “They beat our pants off,” she said.

Money drives behavior

Complementing the hundreds of liberal groups around the country that send activists to create a vociferous presence at corporate meetings each spring, hundreds of U.S. and European social investment funds with names like Domini, Calvert, Trillium and Green Century — along with funds set up by Wall Street investment firms — control trillions of dollars of investments that are directed only to companies that they deem to have supported progressive causes. A study by the Global Sustainable Investment Alliance this year found $13.6 trillion of such investment funds operating worldwide — more than a fifth of total global investment assets.

A global boycott of South African companies and investments in the 1970s is credited with having helped end apartheid and providing the model for the modern social investment movement. While civil rights and the environment remain popular causes, liberals have mobilized in large numbers in the past three years to try to defeat or counteract the Supreme Court’s Citizen United decision in 2010, which spurred a deluge of corporate spending on political issues and elections — mostly in support of conservative causes.

The institute said a majority of the record number of activist resolutions this year dealt with corporate political spending in reaction to Citizens United. Labor unions and the powerful pension funds they control sponsored resolutions requiring corporations to disclose their political spending to shareholders, with liberal activists pointedly questioning corporate directors on how such spending benefits shareholders. The groups are making some headway, with some 77 top corporations pledging not to spend money on politics and hundreds of others agreeing to disclose what they do spend.

The liberal campaigns also have prompted all but one of the corporations included in the prestigious Standard & Poor’s 500 index to provide information about their “sustainable” practices, the institute found in a study this spring.

In a testament to their growing influence, the “sustainable” investment movement opened a new chapter in the past decade or so with the advent of a generation of companies like Starbucks, Costco, Amazon and Apple that have adopted socially and environmentally conscious policies without any pressure on the premise that it’s good business and helps to attract and retain customers.

Apple, while already a leading company promoting green causes, recently bowed to pressure from liberals to make more of its popular iPhones and tablets in the U.S. rather than China. Even a regularly demonized corporate leviathan like Wal-Mart, while maintaining its much-vilified connections with cheap suppliers in China, has adopted some of the lingo of the green movement and other liberal causes to soften its image.

A study this spring by the Investor Responsibility Research Center Institute documents the growing clout of liberals in corporate boardrooms. It found that support from shareholders for environmental and social resolutions introduced by activists multiplied from 2005 to 2011. In 2005, only 3 percent of such initiatives garnered the votes of more than 30 percent of shareholders; that share jumped to 31 percent in 2011.

While it’s still rare for activist resolutions to pass, liberal activists say they now often get enough votes to force corporate management to act — which is their ultimate goal.

Jon Lukomnik, the institute’s executive director, sees a “sea change” in the attitudes of mainstream investors, with many now viewing social issues as important to the corporate bottom line as well as litmus tests of a company’s ability to survive challenges in the global economy.

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