Occupy challenges corporate America directly

When Wells Fargo holds its annual shareholder meeting today, Occupy protesters will be there, both inside and out, arguing against corporate greed and for some kind of corporate responsibility.

This will be the first in a series of at least three dozen protests at shareholder meetings this Spring, the latest wrinkle in the diversifying Occupy portfolio of activism.  Fifty people demonstrated last night outside the bank’s corporate headquarters, nearly half of them camping out overnight.  Organizers–and Wells Fargo–are expecting a couple of thousand today.

Corporate campaigns are nothing new for American activists.  Any shareholder can attend a public company’s annual meeting to press concerns.  In the past, one activist strategy has been to buy a share of target companies just to get to make a speech during the open mike session of the annual meeting.  Anti-apartheid activists did this in the 1970s and 1980s, as have environmentalists and others since.*

I don’t know of any case where the activists won a policy change in the annual meeting, but the directors watching from the front of the room are really less important than a much larger audience outside.  The protests draw unusual attention to a company’s annual meeting, and give activists a chance to lodge their challenges against corporate policy.

For Occupy, the charges are general AND specific.  At right is a downloadable leaflet charging the banking industry with perpetrating wrongs on the American people, including foreclosures, underwater mortgages, record profits and payouts, tax evasion, and unemployment and underemployment.

There are also specific charges against Wells Fargo.  Occupy Oakland describes the bank as:

America’s Biggest Tax Dodger – Hoarding billions of tax dollars that should be paying for public services and putting America back to work
Leads in Foreclosure – Continuing to foreclose on families in an economy it helped to ruin
Predatory Lender – Targeting those who can least afford it with exploitive mortgages and payday lending,especially low-income communities of color
Corrupting our Democracy – Protecting its profits by quadrupling spending on lobbying since the financial crisis began
Prison Profiteer – Profiting from increased incarceration by investing heavily in for-profit prison corporations and anti-immigrant legislation

The campaign to demonstrate at corporate meetings follows on many, generally much smaller, protests at banks across the country.  It’s one strand in an  Occupy campaign that has diversified to include candidacies for office, sleep-outs on Wall Street in New York, protests against foreclosures, demonstrations against cuts in state spending on education, and much much else.

A new coalition, 99 percent power, is at the head of the corporate campaigns, supported by roughly two dozen groups, including labor unions, environmentalist groups, and liberal activists.  Surely all of these people weren’t sleeping out in public spaces a few months ago, but no one owns the right to mobilize against political and economic inequality.

If Occupy succeeds, there will be many diverse campaigns invoking its name, and mainstream political figures responding to its ideas–even without giving the activists credit.

But I guess the lack of access to fair credit is what spurs this campaign anyway.

* On movement challenges to corporate policies, see Sarah A. Soule’s excellent book, Contention and Corporate Responsibility.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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