Bedfellows and Our Independence(A)
I once enjoyed a brief exchange with Hank Greenberg, then-Chairman of American International Group at the company’s annual shareholder meeting, which I was attending to present a resolution co-filed by Trillium and Catholic Healthcare West. As sometimes happens, the proponents of another shareholder resolution at AIG asked if I could present their proposal because of a scheduling conflict. At the appropriate time, I approached the microphone and said, “Mr. Chairman, it’s Shelley Alpern from Trillium Asset Management again but this time I’m representing the Presbyterian Church, not Catholic Healthcare West.” Greenberg asked, “And what religion are you?” which drew a big laugh. “I’m Jewish, actually,” I replied a little sheepishly, resulting in more laughter. (A reporter from the Financial Times was so amused he wrote up a blurb for the next day’s paper.)
Hey, this is America. Some of the other cards in my electronic rolodex make much stranger bedfellows. Contact information for Global Exchange, which ran a campaign against the Gap, is virtually nestled beside the names and emails of the Gap’s corporate responsibility employees. These data bits probably don’t interact that much if they can help it, but I have no compunction about using both in the course of our research and advocacy. Talking to a wide range of people is necessary to get the complete story about a company, particularly where there are allegations of social wrongdoing. It is in the nature of our work as well to partner with groups to file shareholder resolutions even though our perspectives can differ. For example, we have co-filed animal welfare resolutions with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, even though we’re not a vegan organization, as PETA is, nor have we ever thrown fake blood on real fur, as PETA has.
Since we feel it’s pretty obvious that our point of view is distinct from our allies and coalition partners, it can be annoying to have our motives conflated with theirs. I’m still getting over some psychic indigestion from a recent experience of this nature. To understand why, allow me to present a bit of background.
This year, for the third year in a row, we filed a shareholder proposal at Chevron that addresses the controversy surrounding Texaco’s legacy of pollution in Ecuador (Chevron acquired Texaco in 2001, and with it, a class-action lawsuit that alleges that Texaco did not properly clean up hundreds of contaminated sites). Our resolution asks for the company to report on its expenditures related to lawyers’ fees, expert fees, lobbying, PR and media expenses and remediation related to the health and environmental consequences of hydrocarbon exposures at Texaco’s former Ecuadoran sites.
The plot thickened when Chevron wrote to the Securities and Exchange Commission in an attempt to gain permission to omit our proposal from the 2006 ballot. One of Chevron’s arguments to the SEC was that the information we were asking for was of no value to shareholders and could only be of value to the plaintiffs’ lawyers; hence, it was implied, we must be filing the proposal at the lawyers’ behest. This claim relied on an interpretation of a mysteriously obtained private email sent by the advocacy group Amazon Watch to ourselves and others who had participated in a briefing session with plaintiffs’ lawyers. The email notes a discussion in which Trillium declared an interest in filing a shareholder resolution about Ecuador. Pointing to this email, Chevron conflated our interests with the lawyers’ and advocates’, rather than acknowledging that shareholders might have their own valid reasons for pushing it to better account for its handling of the litigation. Thankfully, the SEC wasn’t buying the guilt-by-association argument, and the resolution will appear on the 2006 ballot.
And I, for the record, am no vegan, though some of my best friends are.