Friday, December 23, 2016

History - Or Politics?

Activists in front of City Hall, Portland, Oregon

Portland (OR) had the chance to make history this week.  The City Council of what is widely recognized as one of the most progressive cities in the United States could have made a statement that said it was putting its investments in line with its values, that it was going to put companies that were acknowledged as the “worst of the worst” on a “Do Not Buy” list.

The stage was set.  Two years ago, the City Council compiled a list of criteria for “socially responsible” investing, and set up a Socially Responsible Investment Committee (SRIC) to review the city’s investments and make recommendations as to businesses that should be included on the “Do Not Buy List.”   The criteria included companies for which there were:
  • Environmental concerns
  • Health concerns including weapons production
  • Concerns about abusive labor practices
  • Concerns about corrupt corporate ethics and governance
  • Concerns about extreme tax avoidance
  • Concerns about exercise of such a level of market dominance so as to disrupt normal competitive market forces
  • Concerns about impacts on human rights
Even before the SRIC held its first meeting, the city’s Human Rights Commission (HRC) was approached by a group of human rights “activists” and asked to endorse a request that the SRIC include Caterpillar on its “Do Not Buy” list, based upon its human rights violations in Palestine, among other things.  Initially, the HRC voted unanimously to make this endorsement; after “push back” from the Jewish Federation and other “anti-BDS” activists, a second meeting was devoted to this endorsement with the result that two HRC members backed away from their initial positive votes, while the majority held firm.
Caterpillar violates 6 of 7 Socially Responsible Criteria
The issue then went to the SRIC, which took testimony on Caterpillar and other “bad actors” brought to its attention, including Wells Fargo Bank for its support of the private prison industry and other violations of the city’s criteria.  Again, there was lengthy testimony and heated debate – especially about the inclusion of Caterpillar – but ultimately the SRIC found that Caterpillar violated six of the seven criteria listed above, and put it on the list of “do not buy” companies.  Wells Fargo was also on this list, which then went to the City Council for approval about a month ago.

The City Council then held a lengthy hearing, during which activists on all sides repeated much of the testimony that the HRC and the SRIC had already heard.  Additional testimony was given concerning Caterpillar’s participation in the Standing Rock pipeline, which had become a major issue in the intervening months, and its proposed use to build Donald Trump’s intended “wall with Mexico.”  After taking more than four hours of testimony, one Commissioner decided that the SRIC had not done what he expected them to do (which was to single out two or three companies that were “the worst of the worse"!), so he prepared a resolution that would discount the work of the HRC and SRIC and put the three companies that HE thought were the “worst” (which did not include Caterpillar or Wells Fargo) on the “do not buy” list.

Inside Council Chambers, Portland (OR) City Hall
The vote was scheduled to take place last week, but an unusual (for Portland!) snow storm precluded a quorum of City Commissioners attending that meeting, so the vote was re-scheduled for December 21.  And on that day, the above-mentioned Commissioner – who was (defeated in his bid for re-election and) attending his last meeting before leaving office, did an “about face” and announced his support for the inclusion of Caterpillar and Wells Fargo on the “do not buy” list.  This courageous move (albeit one with few political consequences) was immediately superseded by a so-called “friendly amendment” by another Commissioner to suspend city purchases of ANY corporate bonds for a four-month period, in order to give the city (including the newly-elected Mayor and Commissioner, who would take office in January) a chance to “study” the bigger issue of city investments.

In other words, in my eyes (and those of other activists), the city declined to make a statement about corporate responsibility and socially responsible investing, and merely “kicked the can” down the road to be dealt with later.  It was a solution that pleased everyone by pleasing no-one – very political (and very “un-Portland like” in my humble view!).  And it means that Portland lost its opportunity to take its place in history – to take a stand for justice through its investments at a time when such a sign was urgently needed.

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