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Natasha Lamb, managing partner of the investment fund Arjuna Capital, uses shareholder proposals to push for gender equity. After an Arjuna-backed campaign between and , 22 companies agreed to disclose the pay gap between their male and female employees, adjusted for job titles. Those wins came when a resolution didn't earn the majority of votes. That's because shareholder proposals are not won by a majority. In fact, they're not really won at all — even if a proposal earns a majority of votes, the company is generally not required to make a change.
But they are meaningful in a symbolic way, serving as both a battle cry and negotiating tool from shareholders who want to agitate for corporate accountability. That's because companies know that if the shareholders don't feel heard, they can wield power in other ways: they can oust members of the board, vote down executive pay packages and, ultimately, divest from the company. To keep them happy companies have to pay attention to what they want. Sometimes, wins can be achieved even when the proposal didn't make it onto a shareholder ballot.
Lamb has at times found that just the threat of a high-profile shareholder battle can prompt a company to preemptively make changes behind closed doors. For the companies, negotiating with activist shareholders behind the scenes can keep the shareholders' complaints out of the news and potentially stave off a public relations crisis.
Lamb sees shareholder proposals as a way to guide companies toward better returns, noting that Arjuna encourages companies to act within their "enlightened self interest. She sees equal pay and climate change initiatives as a way to boost those returns. Shareholder resolutions can be used to advance a wide range of positions — not just traditionally liberal causes.
Justin Danhof, general counsel for the National Center for Public Policy Research, has used them to try to push companies to the political right, leading a team that took "the model of liberal shareholder activism and did a Justin Danhof, general counsel for the National Center for Public Policy Research, uses shareholder proposals to push companies to add conservative directors to their boards. He has filed a number of proposals urging companies like Starbucks , Apple, Amazon and Facebook to consider adopting "true diversity. Danhof targets corporations because they're "much more amenable to pressure than most politicians," he explained.
Companies have never loved dealing with their shareholders. But for some, the last two years of mounting activism have been downright alarming. As asset managers like BlackRock, State Street and Vanguard have become increasingly willing to throw their considerable heft behind environmental and social resolutions, companies have started seeing proxy votes as threats.
This year, Amazon alone received 14 shareholder resolutions — more than any other company , according to a count by Alliance Advisors. Though a couple were either withdrawn by their proponents or excluded with the permission of the SEC, 12 measures on issues ranging from food waste to hate speech made it onto ballots. Corporate America has had enough — and it's using its full toolkit to fight back.
In addition to negotiating behind the scenes and asking the SEC to exclude shareholder resolutions from proxy ballots, corporations are pressing for changes in laws and regulations that could stop troublesome shareholder campaigns before they start. Shareholder proposals that focus on social and environmental issues, like the one sponsored by Amazon employees, have been gaining more votes in recent years.
That higher threshold could shut small investors out. Large companies, however, argue that small shareholders should not be allowed to exert an outsized influence. The Business Roundtable has said that shareholders may use proposals as a form of "social commentary or to advocate for a social aim, regardless of the proposal's financial impact on the company. Companies also don't like that just a handful of particularly-active shareholders — four people in total — file more than a quarter of shareholder proposals every year. Jay Clayton, chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, voted in favor of changing the current shareholder proposal rules.
Other rule changes proposed by the SEC would make it harder for shareholders to resubmit repeat proposals and could make proxy advisory firms that vet shareholder resolutions more beholden to the companies they analyze.