Entry for July 03, 2007

Photo of Sister Susan Mika (email) and transcript of April 17, interview by David Todd and David Weisman for the Texas Legacy Project sponsored by the Conservation History Associaiton of Texas.

And when you start from the point of view of trying to look at what’s going to benefit all of the workers verses a few of the workers, you know, especially like in wages—to me that makes a big difference. So we have to keep at it. And we—we’re still keeping at that. You know, if—if a company says that they’re going to consider something then we have to go back and say, “Did you really do it?”

We’ve had the example of Wal-Mart. We had met with them a couple of times. We actually went to Bentonville twice because we could meet with more people there. They would only send one or two people to a meeting in New York; whereas in Bentonville we met with a number of their people, going in and out of the room all day. And then they had agreed to consider an independent monitoring of some of their factories; like a project, a pilot project.

And then they reneged on that. And then, almost at the very same time, the business—Business Week Magazine had a whole exposé of one of their factories. And what was actually going on—not, I mean—I’m sorry—not one of their factories, but one of their vendors, you know, that was making things for Wal-Mart because they don’t own the factory. That’s why we were asking them about vendor standards. And so then, there were consequences to all of that. We broke off, you know, with them. And then, probably about three to four hundred people wrote them, e-mailed them, tried to talk to them. You know, say, like, “These things are really important.” The Domini Social Inde—Domini Social Equity Index dropped them after ten years of being in that fund. So there’s consequences, I think, you know, as you start to look at some of these things. .

I think I’ve already written about “Inside Wal-Mart’s ‘threat research’ operation:
The retailer appears to go beyond most companies in its sleuthing. Its surveillance group hunts computer hackers, trolls colleagues’ e-mails and tries to plug information leaks,” by
Ann Zimmerman and Gary McWilliams which was first published by the Wall St. Journal, April 4, 2007 . Actually in checking, I wrote about it not here, but at Sourcewatch.

What I didn’t catch was this sentence:

According to a January 2007 memo reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, security units were asked to “do some preliminary background work on the potential threat assessment” of those submitting proposals to its June shareholder meeting, particularly those whose resolutions the company was trying to block. The list included proposals from a Boerne, Texas, religious group…

and of course the details of the groups weren’t spelled out. Take a look at the resulting letter from the Benedictine nuns to Wal-mart’s CEO.

I wouldn’t have caught the story if it were not for “Wal-Mart labels Boerne nuns a security threat” by Nydia Lopez of San Antonio’s KENS 5 Eyewitness News, which I read when the nuns caught the attention of Matt Wright (website, email) in his “Blessed are the Patient” entry for the Texas Observer blog for June 27 .

Wright interviewed Sister Mika, who heads the Socially Responsible Investment Coalition. According to his account, the nuns identified as a security threat were stockholders as the SRIC had bought shares so that their complaints and suggestions about working conditions, etc., would

become legal documents, formally lodged at annual meetings and filed with the SEC. These complaints enter at the level of a corporate secretary and require response from management. This is different from a letter the average customer might write, which would be handled as public relations.

The effort is forward-looking, but it’s also a way to get companies on the record years, or sometimes decades, before they actually take action on an issue. It prevents the companies from saying after the fact that there was never any push from stockholders to take the socially-aware action. Mika said, companies would probably do well to listen to what these focused religious groups are asking for and get ahead of the controversy. She said one executive told her that her organization and others like it were usually good barometers of what would be important to the general public, only the nuns, et al., were about seven years ahead of the curve. With the way information disseminates faster now, Mika said that the lag between when the general public catches up is even shorter. ..

Getting back to that old pillar of American-made, Christian-founded capitalism, Wal-Mart has for years been barraged by the socially responsible investors’ calls for better wages and benefits for employees. In one example, Wal-Mart only offered benefits to some employees after they had been with the company two years. They recently shortened that to one year, a move Mika praised. But it wasn’t enough she said, and the coalition continues to point out at annual meetings that most Fortune 500 employees give employees benefits after three months.

Mika told Wright,

Something starts small and then all of the sudden gets more and more traction. Everyone wants to talk about it and everyone wants to do something about…As with all of the issues, you stay in there and you just keep saying, “This is not acceptable.”


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