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In season of annual shareholder meetings, protesters pick environment, economy concerns

Gerald Taylor, left, speaks during a protest before the Bank of America shareholders meeting May 11 in Charlotte, N.C. Critics protested big bank groups’ operations that hurt the economy.

Associated Press

Gerald Taylor, left, speaks during a protest before the Bank of America shareholders meeting May 11 in Charlotte, N.C. Critics protested big bank groups’ operations that hurt the economy.

We're mad as hell and we're … protesting about (fill in the blank) at some major corporation's annual shareholders meeting this spring.

With the rise of economic and environmental calamity and strident politics, protesters of all ilk boast no lack of front-burner issues to rally around at many annual meetings of big corporations that happen to do substantial business in Florida.

Let's simplify what some of these protests want:

• At BP's annual meeting in London, protesters focused on last year's Gulf of Mexico oil spill. The point? If environmental havoc occurs, as it did big time with BP's multimonth, multimillion-gallon Deepwater Horizon oil spill last year, have a better emergency plan in place. And, oh, yeah, don't take so many safety shortcuts in the first place. The spill has cost BP more than $40 billion so far and, to investors' chagrin, wiped out even more than that off its market value.

• In Charlotte, N.C., at the shareholder gathering of Duke Energy (which finalizes its purchase of Progress Energy late this year), protest messages were more diverse. If meticulous Japan can muck up nuclear power safety so badly, what makes Duke any less likely to have a problem? A combined Duke/Progress Energy will want to become a bigger nuclear power player, but for now the backlash from Japan's nuclear fiasco is clouding the U.S. future for nukes.

Other protesters at Duke Energy's meeting focused on the company's ongoing dependence on pollution-laden coal as a fuel to generate electricity. And tea party protesters were even there to complain about Duke CEO Jim Rogers' role in recruiting the Democratic National Convention to Charlotte next year.

• If it's not big oil or big electricity in protesters' sights, it's got to be big banks. At shareholder meetings of Bank of America, Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase, where 20 police cruisers encircled its McCoy Center in Columbus, Ohio, to keep away 900 protesters with a group called Bottom Line, the major complaints outside and inside the meetings were all about the banks' sloppy, robo-signing procedures that helped spark a mortgage foreclosure crisis.

The message? Never trust big banks. There's a good reason that's the underlying theme of that It's a Wonderful Life movie, right?

You almost have to pity the big public company that was ignored by protests this annual meeting season. Hey, aren't we doing anything that somebody doesn't like?

These are hardly the only big businesses to face somebody's wrath.

Two airlines, American and Southwest, were confronted by the Association of Professional Flight Attendants and the Transport Workers. The unions complained of bad faith in contract negotiations. TWU members even passed out luggage tags to those attending the American Airlines meeting with messages such as "American Airlines Executives Pocket Millions and All I Got Was This Bag Tag." Funny, I guess. But is that effective?

In New York's Times Square last Tuesday, protesters demonstrated at a meeting of Wisconsin-based Marshall & Ilsley Corp. shareholders to approve the sale of the company — a large building called M&I Bank Plaza sits in downtown Tampa — to the Bank of Montreal. Why? M&I supposedly still owes money to the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Another reason: Protesting unions call M&I "Walker's Wisconsin Bank" — a referral to M&I executive donations to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who's fighting public employee collective bargaining rights in the state.

A less raucous and more mainstream protest took place Thursday at the McDonald's annual meeting. With an impressive 77 percent approval, shareholders passed a proposal asking the fast-food giant to require all directors be re-elected annually. The Florida State Board of Administration, which oversees Florida's huge public pension fund, submitted the proposal, saying it would help keep directors accountable.

McDonald's had opposed the change but, in a rare event, lost the vote.

Now that most shareholder meetings are done, maybe everyone who was mad as hell is a little less so.

Until next time.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

In season of annual shareholder meetings, protesters pick environment, economy concerns 05/21/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 24, 2011 12:54pm]
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