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2003 Shareholder Advocacy Season
(June 2, 2003, Boston) Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) representatives in recent weeks have been presenting challenges to businesses to become better corporate citizens. Organizations such as the UUA that own shares of stock in corporations are able to petition their managers by filing formal resolutions on policy matters. Issues include equal employment opportunity, particularly non-discrimination based on sexual orientation, global human rights, e.g. adopting codes of corporate conduct, and anti-sweatshop rules for suppliers, among others.
Some of the companies Unitarian Universalist (UU) representatives petitioned recently include Texas-based energy companies such as ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil and CenterPoint Energy.
At Conoco, UUA's Treasurer, Jerry Gabert, filed a resolution for the company's annual meeting agenda on the subject of discrimination based on sexual orientation. His letter said, "The lack of an explicit statement prohibiting sexual orientation discrimination in ConocoPhillips written equal opportunity policy diminishes both employee morale and productivity. More than half of the Fortune 500 companies have adopted written nondiscrimination policies prohibiting harassment and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, as have more than 75% of Fortune 100 companies."
The ConocoPhillips Board of Directors asked if the UUA would withdraw the resolution if they would amend their policy. The UUA agreed and ConocoPhillips has adopted a sexual orientation non-discrimination policy as of May 2003. The Rev. Bruce Bode, Interim Minister of First Unitarian Universalist Church in Houston TX, attended its meeting on May 6th to thank the Board for its prompt action.
The UUA joined with other organizations in filing a resolution to add sexual orientation to the categories listed in ExxonMobil's written equal opportunity policy. David Gray, member of the First Unitarian Church of Dallas TX, made the presentation on May 28, 2003 representing the UUA and the primary filer, the New York City Employees Pension Funds, which has been very active in shareholder activism in the last several years. In spite of opposition by the company's management, the resolution garnered a total vote of 27.1%, an increase over last year's vote of 23.5% that was up 81% from the previous year's vote. These resolutions are advisory and not binding, yet carry significant weight when votes in favor reach this magnitude in the public forum of the stockholders meetings of large companies.
When Rev. Bode attended the CenterPoint Energy meeting in Houston TX on May 7th, the resolution he presented went down to what he thought was a crushing defeat. "Only 32% of the shareholders voted in favor," he said. "When, as requested, I reported this vote outcome to my contact person in the Comptroller's Office in New York City, he was overjoyed. ‘Thirty-two percent, why that's wonderful!' he exclaimed. ‘Usually, a resolution that does not have the support of the Board will bring about 8% of the vote at most. It's now just a matter of time'. His opinion was supported by an executive from CenterPoint Energy who approached me after the meeting" said Bode, "both thanking me for presenting the resolution and assuring me that the policy was on its way to being changed."
The subject of non-discrimination based on sexual orientation has received special attention by the UUA and other concerned shareholders. One of the leaders of the consortium has been The Equality Project, an equal rights advocacy organization. They have targeted the top 100 companies included in the so-called Fortune 500 list of largest publicly-owned businesses. At last count, 90 of them have now explicitly included sexual orientation in the list of prohibited actions of discrimination. "So next year, we'll have to go after the second hundred," said Shelley Alpern of Equality Project.
In addition to ConocoPhillips, another of those large companies to agree this year with the sexual-orientation resolution was J.C. Penny Company, the Texas-based retailing company, which received a 95% vote by its stockholders. This substantial vote total resulted when management agreed to amend its policies and recommended to its shareholders to support the resolution. Presenter David Aspinall, a member of the First UU Church of Dallas, said, "Thanks for the opportunity to speak [on behalf of the UUA]. When the floor was open to discussion, not one dissenter spoke up about non-discrimination regarding sexual orientation."
The UUA's partnership with the NYC Employee Pension Funds is a unique combination of a religious organization working with a secular one on social advocacy matters. Says Patrick Doherty, a senior manager in the NYC Comptroller's Office, which manages these funds, "Our portfolios have several billion dollars of assets and thousands of companies' stock. We want to file a substantial number of resolutions, yet we cannot afford to send people from New York to attend meetings all over the country." The UUA recruits ministers and other UUs from congregations throughout the country to attend annual meetings of corporations and to formally present the resolutions.
One of the recruiters is Jim Gunning, a member of the UUA Board-appointed Committee on Socially Responsible Investing, who has been coordinating this partnership for two years. He reports, "This is a win-win situation. NYC is able to file more resolutions on issues important to them, and we are able to attend and provide witness on social issues at annual meetings nationwide through our network of congregations."
Also recruiting is Mr. Gabert, who is another member of this UUA committee. He reports, "When looking for a presenter in Chicago, I invited the folks at Meadville/Lombard Theological School and received a prompt response from a faculty member, the Rev. James Hobart." Mr. Gabert attended two meetings in the Boston area, those of StrideRite and Raytheon Raytheon where he presented, respectively, resolutions on global human rights standards and equal opportunity affirmative action principles for fair employment.
Another opportunity arose when Kenneth Scott, representing a Boston-based
investment firm, Walden Asset Management, asked for help in presenting the
sexual orientation resolution to ALLTEL Company in Arkansas. Up stepped the Rev.
Scotty Meek, Interim Minister of the UU Church of Little Rock, eager to be heard
in such an unusual venue. As part of his statement on behalf of Walden, he said,
"Firms with inclusive employment policies have a competitive advantage in
recruiting and retaining employees from the widest pool of talent."
Mr. Gunning estimates that UUA representatives will attend annual meetings of about 20 large publicly-held companies this year, including Home Depot, Lowe's, Wal-Mart, Men's Wearhouse, Crane Company, Yum Brands (the Kentucky fried chicken folks), Federated Department Stores, and Dillards.
Mr. Gunning also represents the UU Service Committee in the area of shareholder advocacy, and has attended meetings as their representative.UUSC is co-sponsor with the Committee on Socially Responsible Investing of a workshop on this topic at the UUA General Assembly (GA) on Saturday June 28th at 1:30 p.m. entitled "Taking Stock—Investing with Conscience." Denise Moorehead, Deputy Director for Programs, will be joining Mr. Gunning as presenters.
Another GA event discussing shareholder advocacy will be a major program on Saturday June 28th at 5 pm entitled "Global Justice, Corporate Accountability and Responsible Investing" featuring author Amy Domini and shareholder advocate Tim Smith.