The ’70s Birth of Shareholder Activism
When most people think of shareholder activism, they think of divestment campaigns and the corporate responsibility movement. Most will associate such movements with the campaign against the Apartheid regime of South Africa and the modern Climate Change movement. In 2019, CEOs around the world championed the idea of Corporate Social Responsibility, as investors the globe over seek ways to measure the good that companies do and their climate impact, instead of just their bottom line. However, this modern movement has its roots in the 1970s and the culture wars of the 1960s, swept up in the moment of activism and belief in social progress that defined the early 1970s in America.
What is Corporate Responsibility?
The idea of corporate responsibility has its roots in the tumultuous 1960s and early 1970s. Protest after protest roiled, as students across the country participated in the incendiary climate with protests in favor of Civil Rights, safety regulations, and other movements. However, despite the protests and violence, hardcore activists became disenchanted with the idea that the government offered a path for creating change. In the specific case of safety regulations and environmental regulations, the activists believed that change could not spring from the government, and that its pace of reform was too tepid to control the corporations that they began to see as the root of the problems plaguing the USA. Reform had to come from the corporations themselves, or no progress would be made.
Activists, such as Ralph Nader, famous for his Not Safe at Any Speed – a direct attack against the American car industry’s safety practices, which earned him the ire of the Detroit Automotive manufactures – led the charge against corporations and efforts to hold them responsible for their externalities.
The idea behind corporate responsibility was that change could only come from forcing companies to be held responsible for the social ills caused by their actions. Ralph Nader, specifically, began his Campaign GM in the spring of 1970, which sought to introduce a set of corporate responsibility amendments at the GM shareholders meeting in the summer of 1970. This was the first Corporate Responsibility campaign and the first attempt to utilize shareholder power to force companies to change poor social behaviors.
Corporate Responsibility Campaigns at Penn
At the University of Pennsylvania, the idea of shareholder activism began with the University Investments Committee Student Workgroup, originally campaigning for divestment in the fall of 1969 with a focus on companies supporting Apartheid and the American war in Vietnam. The companies on the list included the INA, Reynolds Metal Company, DuPont de Nemours and Co, Philadelphia Electric, Sperry Rand Corp, and DOW Chemical. The movement quickly shifted with the advent of Campaign GM, and its adoption and support by the student body in the lead-up to the first Earth Day in the spring of 1970.
In the spring of 1970, Ralph Nader began Campaign GM. The 9 Corporate Responsibility amendments proposed by Ralph Nader sought to force the company to change practices in an effort to address air pollution, vehicle safety, and minority representation. The cause was quickly taken up across the country by student protesters and groups, who sought to force GM to combat air pollution. Students fought to force their Universities to support the campaign, as most held significant amounts of GM stock. The University of Pennsylvania specifically held 29,000 shares valued at $2 million. At the University of Pennsylvania, Campaign GM was quickly supported by the student body and environmental activists.
This is the timeline of events leading to the University’s initial decision about Campaign GM.
March 19, 1970 – The Daily Pennsylvanian first reports on the Campaign GM movement, and the potential for the University to use its shares to positively affect social change and progress. Students had begun to urge the University to consider supporting the proposal. Howard Butcher, chairman of the University’s investments committee, stated his opposition to the movement. In addition, he stated that the University almost always supports the management.
March 24, 1970 – The Earth Week Committee of Philadelphia, led by Edward Furia and Austan Librach, sent a letter to President Harnwell urging the university and its faculty to support Campaign GM.
March 26, 1970 – Approximately 20 students at the University of Pennsylvania created three resolutions in support of Campaign GM and the creation of student-faculty review board for university investments. This was opposed by the Board of Trustees investment committee leadership and the wider Board of Trustees.
March 30, 1970 – At the University Plenum meeting, a referendum is approved to bring the GM resolutions to a vote among the whole student body on that Thursday. If approved the resolutions, will be added to the constitution, in a continuing campaign to pressure the University into supporting Campaign GM. This was led by college senior David Tive, who created the petition to get the resolutions put to referendum.
April 2, 1970 – The Resolutions in favor of Corporate Responsibility are supported in the referendum. The proposal in favor of supporting Campaign GM by the university passed 749 to 299. The second, requesting the formation of a joint student-faculty committee to review the University’s investment policies, passed 697 to 302. The third, spelling out guidelines for the proposed committee, passed 542 to 355. The fourth, urging the Faculty Senate and University Council to support the previous three proposals, passed 600 to 386. This demonstrated support for campaign GM among the student body.
April 6, 1970 – The Investments Committee was set to vote on the Campaign GM proposal. The Chairman of the Board of Trustees William L. Day said he believed Butcher would support the proposals protecting consumers. Butcher, however, stated his continued opposition.
April 7, 1970 – It was announced that, by unanimous vote, the Investments Committee has endorsed two consumer-oriented proposals on the proxy ballot of the General Motors Corporation. This represented a volte face for the University investments committee and Board of Trustees, as Butcher stated the importance of protecting ‘Mother Earth’ and consumers. The University of Pennsylvania became the first school to support Campaign GM. It seemed to herald the beginning of an era of corporate responsibility brought about by shareholder activism. Harvard University and the other Ivies announced their reconsideration of their opposition to Campaign GM. The University of Pennsylvania had shown the path forward and demonstrated its commitment to protecting the environment and consumers.
However, time passed, April 22 and Earth Day had become a cherished memory, and as the actual vote on the proxy proposals approached, the University shifted its position. The rhetoric of Earth Day was quickly forgotten, and the University repudiated its prior commitment in favor of supporting the management at GM. The board of Trustees stated that the original decision in favor of Campaign GM was not final or binding, and that Alumni reservations had encouraged them to reconsider their position. Thus, on July 1, with the University out of session and students unable to protest, the Investments committee reversed itself and signaled its support of GM management in the proxy battle, thus, ending a tale of successful student action. The Proxy battle would be won by the GM management that summer and the amendments defeated.
Other Corporate Responsibility campaigns at the University of Pennsylvania did not receive as much support as Campaign GM. In that spring of 1970, the environmental movement and the push towards Earth Day overrode other forms of activism and concerns, including the campaign against the Insurance Company of North America, which supported the Apartheid regime of South Africa. There was an effort in the spring of 1970 to get student support for a similar campus campaign to the one against GM. However, it failed to gain traction as the university community focused on Earth Day. In the case of the campaign against the INA, progress would not be made until 1979, when the University considered divestment, again in an effort to stave off protests on campus. The other campaigns, for a myriad of social issues, fell victim to the attention and energy devoted to campaign GM on campus. Thus, the Corporate Responsibility campaigns, much like other forms of activism, suffered from the success of the original environmental movement and the shift towards pollution control.
These movements did not disappear, however. In fact, they resurfaced in the years after the original Earth Day and are slowly becoming today’s modern Corporate Social Responsibility movement and campaigns.
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Eglick, Peter.“Investment Committee Affirms GM Proposal”. The Daily Pennsylvanian, Volume LXXXVI, Number 16, 7 April 1970.
“GM: A Meaningful Precedent”. The Daily Pennsylvanian, Volume LXXXVI, Number 16, 7 April 1970.
Hobstetter, John. “Students Urge U. to Support Proxy Fight”. The Daily Pennsylvanian, Volume LXXXVI, Number 8, 26 March 1970.
Hoffman, Bob. “Earth Week Backs, Butcher Opposes G M Proxy Battle”. The Daily Pennsylvanian, Volume LXXXVI, Number 6, 24 March 1970.
Holland, Arnold. “On nit-picking investments”. The Daily Pennsylvanian, Volume LXXXV, Number 108, 29 January 1970.
Lee, Min-Dong Paul and Lounsbury, Michael. “Domesticating Radical Rant and Rage: An Exploration of the Consequences of Environmental Shareholder Resolutions on Corporate Environmental Performance”, (SAGE, 2011).
“Moral Evasion”. The Daily Pennsylvanian, Volume LXXXVI, Number 38, 17 September 1970
“Nader Blasts the Role of Corporations in Pollution”. The Daily Pennsylvanian, Volume LXXXVI, Number 27, 22 April 1970.
Nathanson, Neil. “INA and South Africa”. The Daily Pennsylvanian, Volume LXXXVI, Number 26, 21 April 1970
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Riley, John. “Trustees Reverse the GM Decision; Cast U. Proxies for Management”. The Daily Pennsylvanian, Volume LXXXVI, 1 July 1970.
Sama, Anita. “Only 73 Persons Attend Plenum; All Motions Sent to Referendum”. The Daily Pennsylvanian, Volume LXXXVI, Number 11, 31 March 1970.
Sama, Anita. “Vote Leaves Gov’t Form in Doubt; GM, Bail Fund Resolutions Passed Constitutional Runoff to be Held on Three Proposals Investment Comm. Meets On GM Today”. The Daily Pennsylvanian, Volume LXXXVI, Number 15, 6 April 1970.
Schwartz, Donald E. “Proxy Power and Social Goals–How Campaign GM Succeeded”. St. John’s Law Review, Volume 45, Number 4, Article 9, May 1971.
“The Controversial Howard Butcher”. The Daily Pennsylvanian, Volume LXXXVI, Number 51, 6 October 1970.
“Voting for Change”. The Daily Pennsylvanian, Volume LXXXVI, Number 13, 2 April 1970.