Speaking for those who cannot
Stockholders believe in putting your mouth where your money is
By Joanne Flemming
Working conditions in Third World countries, the amount of mercury in Wisconsin lakes, and the number of women and minorities on corporate boards may not seem like issues many stockholders would be concerned about.
But they are if the stockholders are members of the Wisconsin Coalition of Responsible Investment (WICRI).
The coalition's goal "is to try to influence corporations to use money for promoting social good," said Sr. Rose Jochmann, OSF, treasurer of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Holy Cross at Bay Settlement.
The community belongs to WICRI, which keeps a sharp eye on how corporations use their investments because coalition members believe that Gospel values apply to how individuals and institutions invest their funds.
"How we use money, how we use our investments, how we structure our business world says a lot about who we are and how we treat people," says Dcn. Paul Grimm, social concerns consultant for the Green Bay Diocese. "If we are investing in some areas, we want to make sure that we are doing all we can to make sure that money is being used in a way that is socially responsible and morally and ethically consistent with our values."
The diocese, the Norbertines of De Pere and the Bay Settlement Franciscans are the only three groups from our area that belong to WICRI, said Capuchin Fr. Michael Crosby, coalition coordinator. Other religious congregations who serve in the diocese belong to the 17-member coalition, but their community houses are located elsewhere.
Fr. Crosby added that Green Bay is the only Wisconsin diocese that belongs to the Coalition, and only one of 10 in the United States to belong to such regional groups. Other dioceses, including the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, are linked to the national Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) in New York. The national Center has 275 members with estimated investments of $110 billion.
Fr. Crosby says WICRI channels members' concerns to ICCR and relays national concerns back to the state group.
ICCR has divided its concerns into six issue groups: international human rights, international financial concerns, international health and tobacco, energy and environment, militarism, and violence and domestic equality. Not all members work on all six issues.
Right now, Fr. Crosby says many WICRI members are working on vendor standards for manufacturers who supply garments to a major Wisconsin retail chain. WICRI members are concerned that many garment factories in Third World countries are sweat shops.
Investors want standards set that assure workers in all garment shops receive a living wage, safe and healthy working conditions, and such basic rights as freedom of speech and the right to organize.
According to Sr. Maria Drzewiecki, Justice and Peace Coordinator for the Bay Settlement Sisters, vendor standards is only one of the issues related to the "marginated and poor" that concerns her office. Two other issues of concern, she said, are peace and non-violence, and care for the earth.
"Gospel values ask us to be concerned about the poor. They call us to peace, care for our stewardship, care for this earth's goods," said Sr. Jochmann. "It's just all part of the Gospel. If we profess to follow the Gospel, social concerns have to come out of that."
Fr. Robert Finnegan, O.Praem., who represents the Norbertines at WICRI meetings, said his community is concerned about issues relating to the environment, equality for women and minorities, providing low-cost medications to Third World countries, medical product safety and tobacco use.
The Green Bay Diocese is interested in forgiving Third World debt, vendor standards, environment, health, land mine production, and "issues that go against the ethical and moral value system of the church," said Dcn. Grimm.
WICRI members influence changes on these issues by networking, Sr. Drzewiecki said. "We can do a lot more than we would ever do by ourselves."
Fr. Crosby is the issue coordinator for WICRI, whose members meet twice a year.
Their networking leads to the other big way to influence companies to make changes: annual stockholder meetings, where only people who own stock in a company can vote.
Besides voting for board members, stockholders can bring up issues for management to address.
"Shareholders put before other shareholders what management is not addressing to their satisfaction," said Fr. Crosby.
Prior to company meetings, shareholders can file a resolution to be addressed. Companies don't like these resolutions, Sr. Jochmann said, so sometimes, before the stockholder meeting, management is willing to talk to groups that file them. The ICCR publishes a "proxy resolution" book that lists resolutions shareholders will vote on at corporate annual meetings. (See accompanying article.)
"They want to make promises so the resolution doesn't make it to the annual meeting because it doesn't look too good," said Sr. Jochmann. "They are willing sometimes to take some steps to make some changes so an issue doesn't come to the floor."
"Management doesn't like to be told what to do," Fr. Finnegan agreed, but added that, while companies may oppose a resolution, "they become concerned about shareholder issues. And, in time, they may not do a direct response, but do (one) indirectly. Many issues presented as resolutions are defeated, but later they do what was asked."
Both the Bay Settlement Sisters and the Green Bay Diocese have either filed or co-sponsored resolutions. The Bay Settlement community filed a resolution asking a corporation to discontinue selling arms to foreign countries.
Dcn. Grimm said that because of its interest in reducing international debt, the diocese co-sponsored a recent resolution asking a financial institution to change its lending practices.
The resolution led to discussions with corporate heads and, eventually, to changes that brought the situation into line "with what was considered to be good practice," Dcn. Grimm said.
Fr. Crosby commended the diocese for such involvement. "The Diocese of Green Bay, in my mind, is the leader in socially responsible investing in the United States. Green Bay was the only diocese in the United States, to (my) knowledge, that had filed or co-filed any resolution in the last five years. While the Bishops have made the statement that all Catholic individuals and institutions should be involved in socially responsible investing, according to the model they propose, only Green Bay is fulfilling it as fully as it might."
Fr. Crosby said other issues WICRI has been involved in include: the end of Kimberly-Clark's production of cigarette papers; McDonald's restaurants going smoke free; Sara Lee's spinning off its Netherlands' subsidiary which made "rolling" tobacco for people who roll their own cigarettes.