Re-Occupying Main Street
by Seamus Finn, OMI
Every week brings new accounts of citizens across the world occupying plazas, squares, parks and streets to stage yet another protest. The latest “occupy” venue was a pasture in Nebraska with the protesters’ grievance centering on the impact of large agribusiness on the quality and safety of our food supply. Not an unreasonable concern.
The messages of these protests appear to be quite diverse and, in some instances, contradictory. At least that is how critics and some of the media are covering the story. My take is that the all-too-silent majority or self-identified 99 percent have chosen to re-occupy the public spaces and discourse surrendered long ago to the power and reach of large corporations and the people who run them.
I believe there are analogies and lessons to be drawn from the responsible citizenship on display by demonstrators across the world, and the responsible ownership practiced by active shareholders in corporations. Many citizens and shareholders feel disenfranchised and like outsiders or spectators when it comes to the legislative process and the influence of corporations on their lives. “Rigged” or “controlled by money” are words used to express their frustration.
A cornerstone of the capitalist system must be that active and engaged shareowners will provide the checks and balances needed to keep both the long term mission and financial health of corporations in sight and to correct management when things go astray. Responsible ownership is the foundation for building the kinds of businesses and institutions that will respond to investors’ concerns and adhere to ethical principles and policies.
It stands to reason then, that a “corporate capitalism” such as ours that seems increasingly interested in enriching senior executives, and thwarting risk-curbing regulation all in the name of protecting the free market, (especially in the financial sector), needs to be called to account by its owners: and that would be us. At a time when confidence in political assemblies, especially the US Congress, is at an all-time low, only a responsible citizenry can remind government of its responsibility to make the markets serve the common good. Viewed this way, the 99 percent are exercising their rights as active owners of our democracy and their grievances can be seen as legitimate “shareholder proposals.”
The “occupy” movement is in many ways a clarion call to responsible ownership. It clearly illustrates how absentee or passive ownership leaves a vacuum that is quickly filled by those who will make over a corporate or a political culture according to their priorities and objectives. At last week’s annual general meeting in LA I had an exchange with Mr. Murdoch over the legal and ethical failures that have beset the News Corp where he is chairman and majority owner. In light of the phone hacking scandal and subsequent cover-ups, I reminded Mr. Murdoch of his responsibility as “chief cheerleader” to shape the culture of the company that he said himself said he wanted to be “a beacon for good ethical behavior.” News Corp investors delivered strong votes on governance that was an indictment of the company’s behavior and the priorities of its leadership. This is responsible ownership in action.
And as a response to what has been passive or failed ownership of the world’s largest financial institutions, the “occupy” protests are an example of responsible citizenship in action. Absent shareowners, along with management, are responsible for allowing big banks to take on unreasonable risks and leverage that dangerously exposed the entire financial system. The impact of these activities is still unfolding, but the greatest pain is being experienced by those who have few safety nets in times of crisis: the unemployed; those first entering the workforce; those who have lost their homes and health insurance; those whose pensions have been decimated.
Shareholders are part owners of corporations and through their responsible ownership can play a central role in holding corporations accountable and focused on their social, environmental and financial responsibilities. Faith based investors are afforded a unique opportunity to draw on the foundational teachings of their traditions when they actively engage the companies they hold in their portfolios either as individuals or through their faith communities. A significant number have been exercising that responsibility and through active ownership occupying Wall Street for years.
The call to fairness, stability, safety and sustainability connects the protesters on Wall Street with those in Nebraska and with the frustration, anger and disillusionment that continues to be experienced by most on Main St. The conversations that are taking place in the re-occupied public spaces across the country need to be replicated and multiplied wherever communities gather and we must all participate. Responsible, active ownership calls us to use voice our protest in the face of unjust and unethical practices, whether in the boardrooms of the world’s financial institutions or in Zuccotti Park.
Rev. Séamus Finn, OMI has directed the US Oblate Justice Peace Integrity of Creation (JPIC) Office since its inception and has been active in JPIC ministry at various levels for over 25 years. He is a leader in faith-based socially responsible investing, and is active with the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility. He writes a blog for the Huffington Post, where this article was originally posted 11/1/11.