Operating on very different pieces of turf, the Occupy movement and the budding shareholder revolt are putting the status quo on notice: no more business as usual.
With May Day marches across the country earlier this month, the occupiers signaled they’re not going away. They intend to keep taking public space, protesting and reminding the country what our democracy has lost in a takeover by corporate powers.
Meanwhile, corporate shareholders appeared to be slumbering in the wake of the financial crisis, lulled by soothing predictions about economic recovery and buoyed by a stock market recovery.
But taking advantage of an advisory vote granted them in the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation, shareholders have recently taken highly publicized swipes at excessive compensation plans for CEOs at Citibank and British Petroleum and several smaller banks.
At Citibank, 55 percent of shareholders rejected the notion that a company whose shares dropped 45 percent over the past year, wiping out $60 billion in shareholder equity, owed its CEO a $15 million salary hike. Citibank’s board said it would carefully consider the shareholders’ concerns.
CEO compensation plans narrowly won approval at General Electric, where the value of the stock has fallen 45 percent over the past 5 years, as well as at insurance giant Cigna, but not without noisy protests. At Credit Suisse and Barclays, a sizeable minority of shareholder voted against their executives’ compensation packages.
And excessive compensation is not the only thing shareholders are upset about. Some Cigna shareholders also expressed their opposition to the $1.8 million Cigna spent lobbying against health care reform in 2009.
At Wellpoint and Aetna insurance companies, shareholders want company officials to improve disclosure of their political spending, after the Center for Political Accountability found that both companies’ disclosure policies "leave significant room for serious misrepresentation of the company's political spending through trade associations."
Four of Wellpoint’s directors who are standing for reelection also face unusual no vote campaigns because the company has failed to live up to earlier commitments to improve disclosures of their political spending.
To be sure, these actions represent only a small number of corporations so far; most shareholders are approving without a fight the executive pay plans proposed by the board of directors’ compensation committees.
But like the occupiers protesting in the public square, the shareholders at these major corporations have driven a very large, sharp stake into their turf, and these first, highly publicized steps toward more accountability and transparency are likely to inspire more like them.
Occupiers, with their horizontal leaderless anarchist principles and drum circles, and shareholders, with their focus on the bottom line, might not seem to share much other than a desire for more accountability and a sense that the system as it is, isn’t working. But both groups are equally shut out of this political season, with neither party doing anything but paying the slightest lip service to their issues.
The occupiers and the shareholders are also carrying an important message for the rest of us: democracy isn’t just a matter of walking in to the ballot box and pulling the lever for our team every four years and waiting for the politicians to fix our problems.