SEIU and the Shareholder Resolution Weapon

At, blogger Mandy/Liberty Chick has a good, concise account of the rise of shareholder resolutions as a favorite tool of organized labor. By leveraging their pension funds to purchase shares in companies they are trying to organize, unions can bring pressure on those companies, usually as part of a corporate campaign — a coordinated attack on a company’s reputation and ability to do business. She focuses specifically on the use of shareholder resolutions by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which has recently emerged as arguably the most powerful union in America.

Utilizing your proxy vote and providing feedback to the board as an active shareholder is a good thing!  But as others have noted, the potential for abuse also exists, if union shareholders engage the board for purposes other than their pension investment interests. Drucker (and lawmakers in the 1970’s) expected that shareholders and their trustees would either engage to positively affect the stock, or they’d sell it if they didn’t like the company’s management.  Perhaps it is this observation that SEIU’s Andy Stern has seized upon. Rather than sell the stock, maybe Stern wants to control the companies in which his pension trust is invested.  It may have less to do with protecting pension investments and more to do with unionizing workers at those companies.

You Don’t Want a Union?  This is My Baseball Bat & I Call It “Shareholder Resolution”

Of all those companies that have been SEIU’s protest targets, most have been the very same corporations in which the $1.9 billion SEIU Master Trust and some of parent Change to Win Investment Group’s $217 billion are invested. Is it also coincidence that many of these corporations were also the very targets of SEIU unionization efforts?

In early 2009, Andy Stern and Anna Burger wrote to the White House and Congress, demanding a list of financial reforms be legislated immediately, including a central regulator, and control over executive compensation and bonuses.  Then in April, SEIU Master Trust director Stephen Abrecht sent a letter to 29 financial firms in which the trust holds investments, demanding that the companies’ directors investigate more than $5 billion in paid bonuses that SEIU says were based upon false metrics. Among those firms on the list were AIG, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Citigroup, PNC Financial Services and others.

Shortly thereafter, SEIU proposed a number of shareholder resolutions to the boards of many of the companies on that same list, requesting everything from ousting CEOs or board members to controlling employee compensation structures.  Meanwhile, outside on the streets, SEIU’s protests were often coordinated with company meetings and events.  As banks and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce fought against the Employee Free Forced Choice Act legislation, SEIU levied shareholder resolutions against them and issued more demands to Congress for immediate consumer protection and financial reform.

When Anna Burger then testified in front of the Congressional Financial Services Committee in September, not only did she push for a central bank regulator and other financial reforms, but she concluded her testimony by calling for the unionization of bank workers, insisting that the bank workers could then “speak out in protection of consumers” without fear to prevent future crisis.

Not surprising, since SEIU has had its eye on unionizing bank workers for quite some time, placing repeated pressure on banks for years and conducting endless rounds of their infamous corporate campaigns.

The bullying aspects of such tactics is bad enough. Even worse is the effect that using pension funds for objectives other than increasing shareholder value can have on the funds themselves — and on the workers who depend on those funds for their retirement. As Diana Fuchtgott-Roth, former chief economist at the Department of Labor, notes in her study of union pension fund performance, published by the Hudson Institute, “an analysis of the financial status of individual pension plans shows that collectively bargained pension plans perform poorly when compared to plans sponsored unilaterally by single employers for non-union employees.”

The rise of private equity has hindered unions’ ability to wield the resolution weapon. In the case of SEIU, it has forced it to become more aggressive in other corporate campaign tactics, including street protests, such as one in October during the American Bankers Association meeting in Chicago, “where some of the protestors dressed in Grim Reaper garb chased down meeting attendees, brandishing cleavers and butcher knives emblazoned with bloody-looking slogans.”

The precarious state of union pensions is a motivating factor behind unions’ aggressive campaigning in favor of the misnamed Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would allow unions to corral in more members into paying into their pension funds. EFCA’s card-check provision, which would effectively eliminate secret ballots in organizing elections, has proven politically unpopular. However, EFCA’s binding arbitration hasn’t received as much attention.

This provision would enjoin a federally appointed arbitrator — who would be unlikely to know much about the company — to impose a contract after 120 days if the newly unionized company’s management and the union representing its employees could not reach an agreement. This would give union negotiators who don’t get what they want in negotiations an incentive to hold out for arbitration, in the knowledge that they would be certain to do no worse than management’s final offer.

EFCA supporters have been trying to sell this provision as a guarantee of reaching a first contract, but in reality it would take the actual negotiating between the parties out of the contract process. Thus, an employer could find itself facing huge new liabilities in the form of pension obligations.

For more on pension fund activism, see here, here, and here.

For more on SEIU, see here, here, and here.