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By Juan Luis Sánchez / Translation: Nerea Alonso Durán

  • It’s a strategy to be present at the shareholders meetings of multinational companies and take the floor.
  • The president of the company is obliged to answer also to critical adresses.
  • For some NGO’s it’s a way of making public pressure, for others, an effective way of dialogue.

Jordi Calvo put on his orange shirt, black trousers and smart shoes on Friday morning. He walked out of his hotel room, where he had spent the night after his trip from Barcelona to take part in a talk in the Casco Viejo with enough time to get to Euskalduna Palace on time, where the general meeting of shareholders of BBVA of 2011 would take place. At the door of Bilbao’s conference centre there were a couple of police vans, some ertzainas (members of the Basque police) having a look and a group of ecologists protesting. Jordi Calvo greeted them –he had seen them the night before- and went to the main entrance of the building.

When he showed his identification his name showed up on the shareholder list. Jordi Calvo went to the assembly with 350.000 titles under his arm, most of them delegated on him from other investors. With the accreditation around his neck he went into the main room and sat down in his place. He then identified the person who was going to be his companion throughout the morning; a discreet private security officer.

At noon, as planned,  the meeting began. Up on the perfeclty illuminated stage, obviously dominated by the color blue, the president of BBVA, Francisco González, was the first one to take the floor. He bragged about the benefits of his group, that had grown 9,4% in regard to the previous year and he allowed himself to recommend his way of success to the Government in order to take the country out of the crisis. Those were 30 minutes of a political speech rather than business one. Then the managing director came to stage, Ángel Cano, who spoke for another 30 minutes, followed by other technical interventions of other managers.

Then it was the turn for the shareholders. A small group of 10 people got up from their sits and got closer to the microphones for the public, where someone wrote down their names. Jordi Calvo, with his inseparable and discrete companion waited for his turn next to the microphone.

The 8 turns that preceded Jordi’s speech were consumed in praise to the good functioning of the group, some personal complaints for internal grievances and the intervention of the labor-union representatives.  At 14:30 Jordi Calvo got up from his chair, walked to the microphone… and talked:

“Good morning ladies and gentlemen shareholders of BBVA. My name is Jordi Calvo Rufanges and I’m speaking as a member of Centro Delàs of studies for peace in behalf of various shareholders and the Campaign BBVA without weapons (…)”

Jordi Calvo has been practicing “shareholding activism” for years. It works like this: every social organization critical with some business buys its shares to have the right to speak on these meetings. “It’s simpler than it looks” Jordi confessed to us on his way out the meeting. “You just have to buy one share. In any branch or office you can buy one, is cheap, it costs about 10 euros”. In this case, the titles had been delegated by organizations and citizens that support the campaign against funding companies that manufacture nuclear weapons, cluster bombs or anti-personnel mines, among others. “It doesn’t really matter to have a lot or little shares; they let you speak for the same amount of time. The special feature in BBVA is that with less than 500 they don’t let you get into the meeting”.

Santander Bank also has his Trojan horses. On June 11th , on its last assembly, a guy with a white shirt and black trousers breathed nervously in front of the microphone and of the look of Emilio Botín. It was Jordi Calvo again, but also Annie Joh, responsible for the Campaign of Ethical Finance of Setem in Spain. In 2008 and 2009 she took the stand to stop financing Rio Madeira project in Brazil for the damage it was causing in local people and the environment of the Amazon region.

In fact Setem is one of the pioneers of the shareholding activism. Since 2001 they have shares of Inditex, coinciding with the floating of Amancio Ortega’s business (the richest man in Spain) on the stock market. Setem has used the meetings to condemn for example the exploitation of workers trough subcontractors to manufacture the clothes of Zara, Oysho, Massimo Dutti, and Pull & Bear among others. She also asked (and got after two years of insistence) for the compensation for the families of the 64 victims of a fire on a factory in Bangladesh.

Annie Yumi Joh, a member of Setem Spain, in the screen of the general meeting of shareholders of Santander Bank 2009

The shareholding activism has its attractive because the president of the company is obliged to answer to the shareholders’ questions. However, they are all answered together and at the end, and never too specifically. “Normally they deal with us in three words. They deny that what we say is true and accuse us for being unfair and repeat that they follow the international agreements” says Jordi Calvo. Nanda Couñago from Setem Galicia tells us that Amancio Ortega doesn’t answer to her anymore; he just retired and now Pablo Isla, the successor, is in charge of the meetings. Anyways “they always tell us that they’ll investigate as much as they can… Those are empty words, they beat about the bush and we don’t have the right to answer back”.
The shirt and the shoes Jordi Calvo is wearing aren’t his usual attire. “I dress like this so they don’t get scared” he laughs. The atmosphere at the meetings is usually tense. “They’ve never booed us” says Nanda Couñago “but there are recriminations while you’re speaking and some angry reactions”. She could recall one that took place at Adolfo Dominguez’s meeting, in which they’ve been “infiltrated” for five years. She also states that “there are other shareholders that have nothing to do with us and after the meeting they come to encourage us”. Do they ever call you to ask how could they help? –we asked Nanda. “No, the truth is that they never do”

All this, for what?

“We know that we can’t change the textile industry’s relocation system just by going to an Inditex assembly” says Couñago, “because what’s wrong is the international model, and there is no justice there to appeal”. Calvo admits that “their goal with these actions isn’t to change the entity. It would be dumb to think we could get at it that way. These are symbolic, pedagogic and communication actions”

Although other organizations do trust this way of dialogue to change things. “We don’t go to the general meetings of shareholders just to protest or stand out, but to make concrete petitions and proposals” says Susana Ruíz, from Intermón Oxfam. “We use the vote of the shareholders that agree with us”, this means that the investors are not only interested in gaining more profitability with their money; they also want the business they’re investing in to be more socially responsible. Their greatest relation is with Repsol YPF; in its assemblies Intermón  gets hold of almost one million shares from Norway and  USA. They got to change some policies about indigenous populations on the oil explorations of Amazon, according to Susana Ruíz, due to the pressure made on these meetings. “We aren’t happy 100%, but we got some improvements”.

The multinational chaired by Antonio Brufau is now analyzing the last proposal that Susana Ruíz made on behalf of her organization and the shareholders she represented on 2010: she asked Repsol to have a more transparent international accounting. “You can’t ask Brufau to give you a concrete answer right away” says Ruíz “but the request opens the door for future meetings”.
In these cases there are no banners or spectacular actions – “because of the personnel that they’d use against us; we could do nothing and in two seconds we’d be out of the room” says Jordi Calvo – but sometimes the activists take advantage of the fact that they’re in to bring off a more impressive action. As an example, Greenpeace on its campaign against Nestlé; they were using palm oil to make chocolate and it was deforesting Indonesia. Once the activists were inside they unfolded several banners from the ceiling.