Shareholder Activism Advances Labor Rights

Workers are unsatisfied and union pushes are surging. Investors standing with workers can help protect and advance workers’ rights.
two Black women Starbucks baristas are smiling at the camera. One has her arm wrapped another the other in a side hug. They look prepared and ready for work.
Starbucks has made headlines for suppressing worker organizing. Shareholders of Starbucks and other companies with similar union-busting tactics are using their investor power to call for human rights for employees. Starbucks baristas in New York City, p

In March 2020, our country experienced a profound shift. Streets emptied, classrooms turned virtual, office buildings closed—and a spotlight turned brightly on a workforce that had been historically overlooked and undervalued.

“For the first time ever, frontline workers were a central part of the picture,” says Gina Falada, associate director of advancing worker justice at the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR).

At the onset of covid-19 and in its aftermath, labor issues like paid sick leave and workplace health and safety have come to national attention, including to investors.

“The pandemic created an opportunity to shine a light on all these issues,” says Falada.

But we shouldn’t have to wait for a crisis to address glaring problems.

ICCR is a shareholder advocacy group which organizes institutional investors to use their power to push companies towards better policies through shareholder proposals and resolutions. Gina Falada and Nadira Narine, senior director of strategic initiatives at ICCR, help guide and inform investor-members so that their shareholding power uplifts workers and their basic human rights every day.

“Shareholder resolutions are intended to benefit the company and its shareholders by encouraging the company to employ high-road employment practices: preventing discrimination or harassment, respecting workers and their freedom to join trade unions, adopting health and safety protections, and more,” explains Brandon Rees, deputy director of corporations and capital markets for AFL-CIO, a federation of labor unions that represents nearly 17 million workers.

Shareholder Resolutions on Labor Rights

Currently, freedom of association and collective bargaining, the protected rights of unionizing employees, are gaining significant momentum among shareholders. After votes last year at Amazon and Tesla, ICCR is now tracking 12 resolutions demanding that company policies protect worker leadership and unionizing efforts, especially at Starbucks, Amazon, and other major corporations.

For example, Starbucks, as well as Apple, both had high-profile cases of suppressing staff organizing efforts. Hyewon Han, director of shareholder advocacy at Trillium Asset Management, is working with investors on shareholder resolutions that call on these companies to examine their commitment to human rights—particularly, the right to form trade unions. Han says the first step is for companies to hire independent auditors to assess a company’s alignment to its own commitments and incorporate workers’ experiences into the analysis. Apple agreed to hire an independent firm to do this audit, so shareholders withdrew their resolution.

AFL-CIO also protects working people by filing resolutions such as a Wells Fargo resolution on freedom of association that received 34% of the shareholder vote in April. Rees says he is hopeful Wells Fargo will take action, “given the significant percentage of shareholders that supported the proposal.” Another resolution at Amazon encourages the board of directors to consider all company employee pay when setting CEO targets. Amazon famously has the highest CEO-to-worker pay ratio of all S&P 500 companies, Rees says, with the CEO making more than 1,000 times the median employee’s compensation.

Other pro-worker resolutions in 2023 address paid sick leave, gender and racial pay disparities, and workplace diversity. According to the 2023 Proxy Preview report, about 50 shareholder proposals asked about fair pay, working conditions, and benefits.

Everyone Benefits When Investors Stand with Workers

Responsible investors don’t want to profit from exploitation. Many investors have already aligned their portfolios with their values via divestment, shareholder resolutions, corporate discourse, and community development investments to further workers’ rights, green manufacturing, racial and economic justice, and other issues benefiting workers and communities.

For the investors who are only interested in maximizing their profits, what is their incentive to care about workers?

Han looks at the example of union-busting tactics used by corporations historically and in the present, like at Amazon and Starbucks. Old-school management tactics say that unionized workers cost the company more, but Han points out the additional resources needed to put out legal fires and handle a PR crisis, plus the hit taken to morale of all employees.

“There’s research showing that if you develop high-quality partnerships between labor unions and management, you can have productivity gains, among other benefits,” Han says, referring to process improvements, higher morale, and less turnover.

In addition, ICCR points to the recent wave coined as The Great Resignation where people are walking away from poor treatment.

“If [companies] want to be able to grow and sustain themselves as a business, they really have to take a deeper look at what it means to ensure that workers walk in the door and stay there,” says Narine. “I think investors are recognizing that and signaling it in their vote support.”

Whatever is holding national attention—whether that be the pandemic, an investigation, debate, or exposé—is an opportunity for shareholders to enact policy change that reflects their values.

What Green Americans Can Do

Whether or not you are a shareholder, there are many ways to vote with your dollars. From where you bank to your purchasing decisions about clothing, food, and anything else—what you buy and where you get it matters for people and the planet. Learn more with our Vote with Your Dollar Toolkit:

If you own shares in a company, you have power to make change in a company directly.

“Companies typically urge investors to vote against social and environmental resolutions, so they are watching those votes carefully and even a low percentage of support, that grows over time, sends a powerful message to corporate management,” said Fran Teplitz, Green America’s executive co-director for business, investing & policy.

Check out Green America’s resources for shareholders, including information about voting your proxies, supporting shareholder resolutions, divestment, as well as holding mutual funds and pension funds accountable for their shareholder votes.

From Green American Magazine Issue