Wednesday, 31 October 2007

US companies hate union shareholder campaigns

I've just been trawling the website of the US Chamber of Commerce trying to stand up a claim attributed to them in the Guardian today (scroll down to the bottom of this article) that the richest 1% in the US contribute 39% of tax revenue. I can't find it (let me know if you can) and it might be that this says more about the earnings of the top 1% in the US, but that's another story.

But what struck me is how often their president and chief exec, a bloke called Thomas J. Donohue, mentions union shareholder activism. For example, here'a an excerpt from his latest rant:

We will challenge the unions before the Securities and Exchange Commission and in court when they tap their members' pension savings and abuse the shareholder proxy process to win concessions from companies that could not be won at the bargaining table.

Here's another bit from his column back in September:

In the boardroom, the unions have engaged in no less than 300 "corporate campaigns" in recent years. In a corporate campaign, unions hit companies with constant negative publicity, litigation, and regulatory investigations designed to force the company to recognize the union without a worker vote or to extract concessions of already-unionized companies. The unions are increasingly using shareholder resolutions and proxy voting as a weapon, and are developing materials and training people to plan and lead even more corporate campaigns.

And another bit here from February promising to fight unions on director elections:

We will also oppose union attempts to meddle in the governance of corporations through their power as pension shareholders. The goal of corporate directors is to make the company and its owners money, not advance pet issues or special-interest agendas.

I don't believe the head of business lobby group would make these kind of points unless his members are chewing his ear off about it. That suggests to me that the US unions' capital stewardship work is paying off. And given the amount of resource our US counterparts put into such work they must feel that way too.

I've always thought the UK market, with ownership concentrated amongst a smaller group of institutional investors and a much more favourable political and legislative environment, is ripe for similar activity by unions here. Surely it is time we gave it a decent push?

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