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February 13, 2003
Unions Flexing Pension Muscles
Uni
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ons and their pension funds have stepped up their activity as corporation shareholders, angered by CEO compensation and determined to improve corporate governance, the Boston Globe reports.

Already this year, they've filed 297 corporate shareholder proposals. That's an increase of 55 percent from the total number of proxy resolutions they introduced in all of 2002.

"Unions have used the proxy process before, but they are getting more active," said Jay Lorsch, a professor at Harvard Business School. "Union pension funds are also significant shareholders, and they have decided to use the proxy process to try to influence corporate governance."

Specialists told the Globe that a slumping economy and rising anger over escalating executive compensation are causing shareholders - and in some cases, the targeted companies - to pay more attention to the union proposals. Of those filed in 2002, 41 were withdrawn after specific action was taken by the firms they targeted, according to the Investor Responsibility Research Center, a Washington, D.C.-based group that provides research on corporate governance and proxy voting to institutional investors.

Observers also note that far more Americans, including union members, hold stock through 401(k) plans and mutual funds today, and many were angered by the recent spate of corporate scandals.

"Corporate governance is getting tremendous play in the general press because of corporate malfeasance - Enron, Tyco, you name it," said Bruce Beebe, editor of Directorship Monthly, a resource for corporate directors on best board practices and trends. "Number two, there is a sense among institutional investors that they have not taken nearly as active a role on such issues as compensation and independent audits. Unions and church groups were filing proxy resolutions for years, but people are paying more attention now. It's front page news."

The IRRC is joining with advocacy groups monitoring corporate involvement in social or environmental issues to announce a record number of resolutions by unions, religious, and environmental groups for 2003.

The other organizations are the Social Investment Forum, the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, and the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies.

The IRRC told the Globe that the number of plans filed by labor unions and union pension funds this year more than doubled since 2001, when 105 were filed. In total, the IRRC has tracked 641 proposals by a variety of institutions for 2003.

The AFL-CIO says its affiliates and their pension funds have filed 380 proposals thus far, almost double the number filed in 2002. Most attack stock options awarded to executives, said Brandon Rees, research analyst at the AFL-CIO investment office. Many executives receive options that rise in value as the company's stock rises above the price at which the stock option was granted.

Unions want the exercised price of an option tied to a benchmark such as the Standard & Poor's 500 stock index. That would allow an executive to profit only if his company's surpasses the market index.

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