Shareholder Actions

Albert Beale, from Peace Pledge Union (British WRI affiliate), and CAAT activist

Most major corporations in Britain are owned by shareholders who, between them, own millions of shares in the company. Sometimes even one individual shareholder will hold millions of shares - yet other people might only own one.

Who are these shareholders? The very largest ones tend to be other corporate bodies - such as pension funds, investment funds which invest money on behalf of lots of small savers, and other companies. Then there are rich individuals. Then there are well-off (but not very rich) individuals who have some of their regular savings invested in a company.

And then there are people who have literally just one or two shares: people like us. Owning a single share is irrelevant in financial terms, and gives no serious say in what the company does - but it's enough to let you make trouble... Even a single share gives you legal right to receive all the company's reports, and attend shareholder meetings.

For this reason, campaigners of many sorts in Britain - including anti-militarists - have frequently adopted the role of dissident shareholder as one of their repertoire of tactics. A good example of this is the Campaign Against Arms Trade, dozens of whose supporters own a share in the notorious BAE Systems (BAES - formerly British Aerospace), the country's biggest arms company.

Tactics used are varied. When deciding on a plan, it's important to remember who else is at a company meeting, and whom you're trying to influence.

There is the company's board of directors and its officials - they're unlikely to suddenly see the light, no matter how eloquent the arguments made; but they can certainly be embarrassed and be made to look on the defensive, in front of hundreds (sometimes thousands) of people.

Then there are the massed ranks of "suits", there on behalf of the major shareholders who between them own most of the company - these people will not be susceptible to pressure on the day (indeed the organisations they represent will have cast their votes in advance anyway, and any influence on them is a much longer-term behind-the-scenes activity). But these are exactly the sort of people whose views the company chiefs care about; and exactly the people the company chiefs don't want to lose face in front of.

Next there are the smaller shareholders, some of them retired people who are having a day out in London to attend the meeting of "their" company - many of these have illusions about what power they actually wield (virtually none), and about how much real democracy there is at a company meeting (very little indeed). It can be possible to shatter some of their illusions. Though in the case of BAES (unlike companies in some other sectors), illusions about the real nature of the company's work are rare: after all, the company boasts about it!

Also, not to be overlooked, are the media representatives - many will be from specialist publications, and hence largely supportive of the company. Others will be the financial correspondents, and occasionally the political correspondents, from the mainstream media: and these can be an important conduit for publicising anything useful which happens in the meeting.

So, on to tactics. One possibility is for people to take it in turns to cause enough noise and disruption that they are, successively, thrown out. This is a way of impeding the business of the meeting and demonstrating an unwillingness to allow a company whose very existence is as illegitimate as BAES's is to conduct "business as usual".

It's also possible to ask polite, but argumentative, "questions" about various parts of the meeting's business, in a way that allows for public argument with members of the company board. It's in this context that the company leadership can sometimes be seriously embarrassed.

And also, there's the chance of asking detailed questions which actually discover information which you wouldn't otherwise find out. With enough prior research into a company, it's sometimes possible to raise points that either they haven't anticipated, or they have no good way of dealing with anyway, and in the process some useful information sometimes slips out.

These different types of action inside the meeting aren't always mutually exclusive, although depending on the company and the way they run their meetings, they sometimes can be. Activists can often vary their tactics from year to year to try to keep a company "on the run"; at the same time, a company will try to evolve the way it organises its meetings so as to keep as much control over the situation as possible. It can be a continuous battle of tactics.

A refinement on these approaches is when a company's work is affecting people abroad who want to call the company to account but have no way to do so in their own country. Funds are sometimes raised to bring representatives of these communities to Britain, and register them as the official proxy of one of the named shareholders so that they have a right of entry to the company meeting. They can then talk from personal experience of the problems the company is causing: this is sometimes an especially powerful way of challenging company directors in a way they have trouble dealing with.

Meanwhile, outside company meetings, a demonstration or stunt can attract public and media attention too. In the case of the media, such a visual element is sometimes enough to tip the balance in terms of whether or not they'll cover what the dissident shareholders have had to say inside.

If you haven't considered this tactic before in your campaigning, it might be that the company you want to target hasn't either - you might not need lots of people for effect. The first time that BAES were targeted in this way, many years ago, there were only 4 dissident shareholders in a hall full of hundreds of suits - yet they dominated much of the meeting. So get down to your local stock market today!