Shareholder Advocacy

 
 

[1]  Taking activist positions on issues of society is not a new endeavor for United Methodists and followers of the Church's founder, John Wesley. Historically, the denomination is known for its involvement with political and social struggles that impact individuals locally and globally. The General Board of Pension and Health Benefits of The United Methodist Church (General Board) continues the tradition of social advocacy.

[2]  The General Board administers a pension fund of $10 billion for more than 66,000 employees. The fund's investment portfolio is screened to prohibit investments in companies that derive significant revenues from alcohol, tobacco, gambling, pornography and armaments. In addition, the General Board invests nearly $1 billion in its affordable housing program.

[3]  The board of directors through its Social Responsibility Committee is charged in the General Board's "Investment Strategy Statement" with a mandate that includes ensuring that Board investments are consistent with the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church, providing oversight of the Board's investment portfolio to ensure compliance with socially responsible investing policies, and establishing guidelines and providing oversight of proxy voting

[4]  The Social Principles offer directions to the denomination on addressing contemporary issues in society from a biblical and theological perspective. The Book of Discipline describes the Social Principles:

The Social Principles provide our most recent official summary of stated convictions that seek to apply the Christian vision of righteousness to social, economic, and political issues... our struggles for human dignity and social reform have been a response to God's demand for love, mercy, and justice in the light of the Kingdom. We proclaim no personal gospel that fails to express itself in relevant social concerns; we proclaim no social gospel that does not include the personal transformation of sinners. It is our conviction that the good news of the Kingdom must judge, redeem, and reform the sinful social structures of our time. The Book of Discipline and the General Rules convey the expectation of discipline within the experience of individuals and the life of the Church. Such discipline assumes accountability to the community of faith by those who claim the community's support. Support without accountability promotes moral weakness; accountability without support is a form of cruelty. A church that rushes to punishment is not open to God's mercy, but a church lacking the courage to act decisively on person and social issues loses its claim to moral authority.

[5]  Every four years the Social Principles are reviewed by the Church's General Conference and revised as appropriate. The Social Principles revolve around seven areas:

a. The Natural World-sustaining all creation
b. The Nurturing Community-caring for humanity
c. The Social Community-responsibility of human beings toward one another
d. The Economic Community-influencing economic policies
e. The Political Community-ordering society in political systems
f. The World Community-interactions between nations

[6]  Biblical references and theological perspectives and links resolutions to selected Social Principles. The resolutions provide suggested actions for churches, individuals, church boards and agencies and local, state or national governments.

[7]  Methodism's founder, John Wesley provided a new approach to social reform in the 1700s. On the subject of acquiring riches through "unhealthy" occupations such as gaming, dishonesty, over charging and unfair competition, John Wesley declared, "None can gain by swallowing up his neighbor's substance without gaining the damnation of hell." The General Board in keeping with the Social Principles has avoided investments in companies with significant interests in alcohol, tobacco, gambling and pornography. Some of the Church's positions are stated in the Social Principles:

J) Alcohol and Other Drugs: We affirm our long-standing support of abstinence from alcohol as a faithful witness to God's liberating and redeeming love for persons. We support abstinence from the use of any illegal drugs. Since the use of alcohol and illegal drugs is a major factor in crime, disease, death, and family dysfunction, we support educational programs encouraging abstinence from such use… We commit ourselves to assisting those who have become dependent, and their families, in finding freedom through Jesus Christ and in finding good opportunities for treatment, for ongoing counseling, and for reintegration into society

K) Tobacco: We affirm our historic tradition of high standards of personal discipline and social responsibility. In light of the overwhelming evidence that tobacco smoking and the use of smokeless tobacco are hazardous to the health of persons of all ages, we recommend total abstinence from the use of tobacco…Further, we recognize the harmful effects of passive smoke and support the restriction of smoking in public areas and workplaces.

The Economic Community- G) Gambling: Gambling is a menace to society, deadly to the best interests of moral, social, economic, and spiritual life, and destructive of good government. As an act of faith and concern, Christians should abstain from gambling and should strive to minister to those victimized by the practice….The Church should promote standards and personal life-styles that would make unnecessary and undesirable the resort to commercial gambling-including public lotteries-as a recreation, as an escape, or as a means of producing public revenue or funds for support of charities or government.

The Nurturing Community - G) Human Sexuality: We recognize that sexuality is God's good gift to all persons. We believe persons may be fully human only when that gift is acknowledged and affirmed by themselves, the church, and society. …We believe that sexual relations where one or both partners are exploitative, abusive, or promiscuous are beyond the parameters of acceptable Christian behavior and are ultimately destructive to individuals, families, and the social order. We deplore all forms of the commercialization and exploitation of sex, with their consequent cheapening and degradation of human personality. We call for strict global enforcement of laws prohibiting the sexual exploitation or use of children by adults and encourage efforts to hold perpetrators legally and financially responsible.

[8]  The General Board's Social responsibility committee finds suggested guidelines on structuring the pension fund's socially responsible investing program in resolution 202 "Investment Ethics" which is an elaboration of the social principle on "The Economic Community".

[9]  Through proactive advocacy, the General Board seeks to constructively influence corporate management. The channels used to "persuade corporations to end irresponsible behavior and live up to high moral standards" are enumerated in the "Investment Ethics" resolution as follows: "letter of inquiry, dialogue with management, voting proxies, sponsoring shareholder resolutions, speaking at shareholder meetings, working in coalitions with other concerned shareholders and petitioning the Securities and Exchange Commission on proxy rule changes."

[10]  During the 2003 proxy season, the General Board filed 32 shareholder resolutions with selected corporations. Companies that usually receive shareholder resolutions are those in which the General Board has large share positions, they are leaders in their respective industry and are frequently located in the Chicago metropolitan area.

[11]  The seven general areas of focus this year are corporate governance, the environment, diversity, financial accountability, global accountability, affordable drugs and sale of weapons to foreign military governments. All of these subjects are addressed either in the Social Principles or The Book of Resolutions. Representatives of the General Board favor meeting with corporate management because we are better able to encourage, motivate, and persuade the company to adopt a revised position. When mutually agreeable positions are established between the General Board and corporate management we routinely withdraw shareholder resolutions.

[12]  The General Board's shareholder advocacy includes not only raising issues of concern with corporations, but also commending them for positive actions. Letters are routinely sent to companies acknowledging boards that contain a majority of independent directors and also include women and persons of color.

[12]  The General Board's Social Responsibility Committee is strongly committed to advocating on issues of diversity. The Social Principles - "The Social Community" states the Church's position as follows:

A) Rights of Racial and Ethnic Persons …We rejoice in the gifts that particular ethnic histories and cultures bring to our total life…We further assert the right of members of racial and ethnic groups to equal opportunities in employment and promotion; to education and training of the highest quality; …and to positions of leadership and power in all elements of our life together. We support affirmative action as one method of addressing the inequalities and discriminatory practices within our Church and society. …

F) Rights of Women We affirm women and men to be equal in every aspect of their common life…. We affirm the right of women to equal treatment in employment, responsibility, promotion, and compensation. We affirm the importance of women in decision-making positions at all levels…We support affirmative action as one method of addressing the inequalities and discriminatory practices within our Church and society….

[13] Further The Book of Resolutions in resolution 150. "Affirmative Action" stipulates: "…The United Methodist Church calls upon all its members to: …

(3) declare our support of efforts throughout the society to sustain and, where needed, strengthen affirmative action legislation and programs;
(4) collaborate with movements and initiatives seeking to ensure effective participation of ethnic and racial minorities, women, and persons with disabilities in all sectors of our society;…

 [14] Consistent with the Church's directives, the General Board wrote letters dated March 5, 2003 to 37 companies thanking them for their proactive public support of the Supreme Court's affirmative action case at the University of Michigan.

[15] Since 1999, the General Board has filed board diversity, and glass ceiling review resolutions with the Bed, Bath and Beyond Corporation. The 2001 and 2002 resolutions received 27.2% and 18.9% of shareholders voting in favor of the company adding women and persons of color to the board and reporting on initiatives taken to address challenges of workforce diversity in decision making positions in the company. It is encouraging that after four years of resolutions being filed, management of Bed, Bath and Beyond has agreed to meet with shareholders in April of this year.

[16]  The General Board was pleased with the recent Securities and Exchange Commission decision that requires mutual funds to disclose how they vote proxies on their client's behalf. A copy of the General Board's proxy voting guidelines, record of proxies voted and other shareholder advocacy documents are available on the web site at: www.gbophb.org.

[17]  The General Board remains committed to the premise that the investor and corporate management can work together to achieve positive results. We are encouraged that the General Board's shareholder advocacy initiatives have resulted in corporations diversifying their board of directors, publishing environmental, diversity and corporate responsibility reports and adopting ethical codes of conduct.

[18]  In partnership with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and other investors affiliated with the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, the General Board served as an advocate on behalf of the Pimicikamak Cree Nation with the Xcel Corporation. In a 2002 shareholder resolution the company was asked to consider the use of renewable energy that does not harm indigenous peoples. In a letter dated March 7, 2003 to representatives of the General Board, Chief John Miswagon of the Pimicikamak Cree wrote:

As a result of the shareholder resolution and campaign, Xcel management came to be aware of our plight and how they had a role to play to ensure the Manitoba Hydro power they buy is as clean and humane as possible…While we waited for 25 years for this first sign of justice, we know we might have had to wait many more years if people like you had not become involved to support us…You have brought hope to my people.

[19] The General Board continues to use its investor influence to hold companies accountable for high standards of corporate citizenship. We welcome the opportunity to work in partnership with other socially responsible investors to advocate for social change.

 
 
© June 2003
Journal of Lutheran Ethics
Volume 3, Issue 6