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CNN International: Investment Activism

by Jonathon MannCNN
August 24th, 2005

JONATHON MANN, HOST: The Montgomery bus boycott that began in 1955 is probably the most famous example of consumer activism in U.S. history. Blacks in Montgomery, Alabama refused to ride the city's buses in a protest that eventually led to a landmark defeat for segregation.

Two decades later, a movement that would come to be held as shareholder activism set its sights on racism overseas. U.S. students rallied to convince their colleges to sell off investments in South Africa.

Welcome back.

The most active campaigns of consumer and shareholder activism have been from the left of the U.S. political spectrum, taking on American allies like South Africa, Israel, even Great Britain for its policies in Northern Ireland. Now that seems to be changing.

Joining us now to talk about it is Pratap Chatterjee, executive director of CorpWatch, an activist organization that is pressing for more democratic control of corporations.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Is it fair to say that the conservatives are learning from the liberals on this?

PRATAP CHATTERJEE, CORPWATCH: Absolutely, and I think it's very interesting to see how activism, both on the right and the left, are becoming increasingly similar but as your reporter pointed out, this is something that started, you know, 35 years ago with activism around South Africa and now perhaps 10 to 15 years ago the religious groups on the right are actually copying those tactics.

And so, I mean, you can think of activism a little like an archer, you know, with a bow and a quiver full of arrows, and they have a variety of tactics or arrows. They have shareholder activism, they have lawsuits, they have boycotts, they have protests, they have lobbying, and one very important tactic is, you know, going to company meetings and putting resolutions on the table for people to vote on.

There is a lot of similarity on both sides. So you have the progressive left wing groups who are, you know, against environmental pollution, and you have the right wing groups who might be opposed to gay marriage, for example. And they do very similar things and it is increasingly something that has been happening on the right, targeting, for example, pro-choice groups, targeting groups like Planned Parenthood have been attacked. Companies that, for example, donate to Planned Parenthood have been asked to divest from that. And some of them have been worried about the impact on their shareholders and so they have agreed, even if the resolutions have not necessarily succeeded from the shareholder point of view, the companies have quietly dropped funding for Planned Parenthood.

MANN: How many different groups, on both ends of the spectrum and through the middle, are out there trying to organize either consumer boycotts or shareholder activism right now?

CHATTERJEE: If you take on the left, the groups, one thing that is common on both sides is that both of them are actually very heavily religious and so the original groups that organized around South Africa often were very involved in their church, and the same is true on the right. But there, you know, the similarity ends.

Whereas they might both be interested in certain issues, such as child labor, in fact on other things they are polar opposites. So on the left they might be pro-choice and pro-gay and on the right it might be the opposite.

The Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility, for example, in New York, which has existed for about 25 years, counts something like 275 members, and their members manage $110 billion worth of assets. On the right, it's much smaller. It's newer. We're only talking 10 to 15 years. The individual funds themselves might be -- Domini (ph) Social Investment, for example controls about $1.8 billion in assets. And I think -- I'm not sure about the exact numbers on the right. Here we're talking about groups like the Timothy Plan, the Noah Fund, the Quinus (ph) Fund, New Covenant, Provita (ph). These are people who also manage in the billions of dollars.

They're both still a drop in the ocean compared to the total amount that is invested --

MANN: Let me ask you about that. If it's just a drop in the ocean, does it make a difference?

CHATTERJEE: It makes a difference. And, again, as I said, the analogy of the quiver. This is one tactic, and it's married with a number of other tactics, such as protests, such as lobbying and changing government policy.

So to give you the example of Provita (ph), which is lobbying around - - which was trying to get groups to stop funding Planned Parenthood, even though their resolution failed, the companies then followed what they said. And I think in this particular case AT&T, Proctor & Gamble, if I recall correctly, among the groups that followed suit, even though they only represent a fraction of money. And the tactic here is to try to work with other groups that may not necessarily be as socially responsible or morally responsible -- the two terms are socially responsible investing and morally responsible investing.

The key thing here is to team up with people who will give you added oomph. So, for example, you might team up with unions who have people power. You might team up with pension funds who really are heavyweights in terms of money, because if you go to state employees' pension funds in New York or California, we're talking a lot of money, and one person voting on one of those boards can represent 10 percent of a company.
MANN: This sounds, frankly, just like big money American politics by another means. People find they can't win with lawmakers, can't win in the courts, are hoping to win in other ways.

CHATTERJEE: Again, like I said, there is a variety of tactics, and they use this slew of arrows in this quiver, and the idea is that if you plan properly and you employ a variety of tactics, eventually you win your battle.

To give you the example of global warming, for example. Environmental groups have been working on this for over 10 years. And they started out, you know, they filed shareholder resolutions against companies like, this year, for example, Chevron and Ford and General Motors.

At the same time, years ago what they did is they went after the insurance companies and they told the insurance companies, look, if you don't do anything about global warming, this is fact going to have a huge impact on your bottom line, because they realized that the companies wouldn't necessarily follow their opinions, because they make money selling oil. The insurance companies on the other hand have a lot of money and do lose a lot if there are huge hurricanes in the Atlantic that they're going to get the bill for.

So the idea is you push in many different directions because if one doesn't work, you try another. Sometimes, if you're clever, you actually employ a variety of tactics together, and that's the ethic here. Whether it's on the left or it's on the right, you know, whether you are against gay marriage or you're in favor of trying to get companies to adopt policies to help people who have HIV, for example, in South Africa, then you want to try a variety of different tactics. So, that's the way you get -- change happens, I guess.

MANN: Pratap Chatterjee, of CorpWatch, thanks so much for talking with us.

CHATTERJEE: Thank you so much for having me, Jonathan.

MANN: We have to take another break. When we return, what's the corporation to do, pursue the bottom line or the moral high ground?
Stay with us for that.

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