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Next, occupy boardrooms

Now that the Occupy Wall Street movement has been prevented from sleeping in public spaces in New York, it is time to take stock of what was accomplished. And then buy stock.

I'm not kidding about that last bit. I'll get to that later.

The occupy movement was highly effective in demonstrating public anger at the staggering growth of income inequality in the United States over the past 30 years. Corporate greed and a political system where big money shuts out the "99 percent" has gotten us where we are today. The occupy protesters forced political leaders to face this corpus of public disaffection.

Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, just came out with a scathing report outlining how America's millionaires receive more than $30 billion annually in taxpayer support for things such as tax write-offs for gambling debts, vacation homes and luxury yachts. He denounced it as "welfare for the well-off."

When a Republican is taking up the mantle for the 99 percent, the message has been received.

But there has always been a "what's next?" problem with the occupy movement. Without a specific platform or formal organization, the movement seems to have atrophied into directionless stasis. The media has focused less on the 99 percent's economic grievances and more on the messy encampments.

With the demise of some tent cities, all that activist energy should not be allowed to fizzle. Occupy needs to live on but with more sophisticated tactics. Certainly continued marches and political organizing are essential, but the occupy movement should also consider bringing its objections to the belly of the beast, directly into America's corporate boardrooms. Shareholder activism, coupled with public protests, may be just the right mix to change corporate (mis)behavior.

Socially responsible shareholder activism is not new. It just hasn't been very effective. Shareholder resolutions opposed by management usually don't get very far or generate much public notice.

Today's digital tools can change that. Web sites such as help collect the proxy votes of individual shareholders on particular issues. Combine that with social media, and there is finally an economical way to organize shareholders to push back.

Imagine if public employee and labor pension funds, nonprofit foundation endowments, individual investors with a social conscience, and socially responsible institutional investors coalesced and voted as a bloc on shareholder resolutions for more corporate transparency, good governance and social consciousness.

Add in the power of the occupy movement to mobilize targeted public protests, bringing attention to "99 percent" issues on a company's annual meeting agenda, and it could be a winning game plan.

It doesn't take much to get a shareholder resolution considered. A shareholder must own at least $2,000 worth of stock for a year to submit a resolution at the company's annual shareholder meeting. The 540 or so nuns of the Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia have been using their retirement fund since the 1980s to try to coax social returns as well as financial ones from corporate America.

Plenty of others have tried it, too. Laura Campos, director of shareholder activities at the Nathan Cummings Foundation, says part of its $405 million endowment has been used to introduce socially conscious and environmentally friendly shareholder resolutions at more than a dozen top companies.

But efforts like these haven't made big strides. The occupy movement should help by capitalizing on its success in highlighting public anger over corporate greed. Protests can draw focus to annual meetings when shareholders are voting on exorbitant executive pay packages ("say on pay" is now law), or, perhaps, a shareholder resolution for full disclosure of corporate campaign donations or the adoption of fair labor standards along the corporate supply chain. Companies may accede ahead of time just to avoid the attention, or the push may goose Washington to act instead.

Maybe actually occupying Wall Street has run its course. It's time now to try to subdue it with more coordinated protests, canny political organizing and by exerting influence from within.

Next, occupy boardrooms 11/19/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 19, 2011 3:30am]
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