Yesterday, people from all over the country streamed into the Excel Conference Centre in the London Docklands to take part in the financial theatre that is the BP Annual General Meeting. One of the people who was protesting outside remarked that there was a “surprisingly low shareholder turnout of hedge fund managers in suits, and a surprisingly high turnout of angry, nutty senior citizens in bow ties who turned up just for the free sandwiches.”
Apart from the sarnies, maybe the senior citizens were turning up because they felt that they wanted to engage with BP execs and this was the only opportunity that they had, and and conversely, maybe the hedge fund managers weren’t out in force a) because all the voting by the institutional investors on the various resolutions being chaired had largely been done in advance of the event and b) because they have more access on a day to day level to the boardrooms and business lunches where all BP’s activities are being arranged, and they realize that what was happening at the AGM was largely a display of tokenistic accountability.
There was one resolution – number 35 – that attempted to inject a little bit more accountability into the proceedings. There is a river of finance that flows from the UK to Canada that enables oil companies to expand their activities in extracting tar sands, which the report ‘Cashing in on Tar Sands’ showed, is causing alarming damage to the climate, the vast boreal forests and the waterways. At the same time, rare forms of cancer are spiking in indigenous communities, and many are no longer able to carry out traditional ways of living based on hunting and fishing due to the lesions and boils that are appearing in fish and mammals.
There are many ways in which we as individuals are contributing to this. Unless you bank with someone with a strict ethical investment policy, the money in your bank account could be used to finance tar sands. If you are a UK taxpayer, your money that has been used to bail out RBS could be being used to do this. And if you have a pension, then chances are your pension fund is one that has shares in BP or Shell and is part of the financial architecture that is allowing this environmental and social devastation to take place in Canada.
During the run up to the BP AGM, the organisation Fair Pensions mobilized unprecedented numbers of pension holders to contact their pension providers to vote in favour of a resolution urging BP to review it’s involvement in tar sands, and to call for more information as to the impact of the practice. Apart from attempting to address the injustice that is being perpetuated against the climate and Indigenous Peoples in order to feed our oil addiction, this mobilization represented a broader campaign to democratize financial institutions and institutional investors. Vast numbers of people have a financial stake in how these companies are operated and what sort of decisions they make, but up till now as individuals there ability to have any kind of voice in the process has been largely non-existent.
The resolution wasn’t passed, and no one expected that it would, but 15% of the shareholders voted in favour of the motion or abstained – effectively voting against the wishes of BP, despite the company’s pre-AGM blitz of the investment community to assure them that ‘everything is just fine.’ It’s a big result in the context of similar protest resolutions being tabled, and an even bigger result in terms of the amount of critical attention that BP has been receiving in the public sphere over it’s involvement in what is quickly becoming the most high profile toxic hotspot in the world.
Obviously, this one vote, in one AGM isn’t going to stop the tar sands catastrophe from unfolding. All eyes are now on the Shell AGM on May 18, where a similar resolution has been tabled. And in Scotland on the 28th of April, people will be protesting about RBS heavy involvement in providing finance for tar sands-related companies. Continuing the trend of looking to democratise financial institutions, a number of groups are also holding a ‘Public Shareholders Meeting’ in the evening after the RBS AGM, arguing that since the bank is publicly owned, we should all be invited to have some say in how it is run and what it should be investing in.
Big banks and corporations make decisions that harm climate and communities using both money and power that the ‘little people’ give them in their banks accounts, taxes and pensions. Its important that people start coming together to exercise their right to have some say in the decisions that are being made using their money rather than just acting like ‘absentee landlords’.