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May 27, 2022

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Activists press companies on abortion with Roe v. Wade at stake

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Institutional investors with a combined $11.8 billion in assets launched a coordinated effort to pressure The Home Depot Inc. and more than a dozen other companies on the disparity between their public support for women in the workplace and contributions to lawmakers who want to restrict abortion access.

Fund managers including the Employees’ Retirement System of Rhode Island and Perpetual Ltd.’s Trillium Asset Management, together with foundations such as the Unitarian Universalist Association and environment, social and governance investing advocates like As You Sow, filed disclosure proposals for the 2022 proxy season at the companies, said Rhia Ventures, a social impact fund that’s coordinating the effort.

The push reflects how the fight over abortion access, one of the most divisive issues in U.S. politics, is coming to a head in Washington and on Wall Street. The Supreme Court is expected to rule by the end of this term in challenges to state laws restricting the procedure and could overturn Roe v. Wade, its landmark 1973 decision that established a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion, just as the annual corporate shareholder meeting season winds down.

“We’re not convinced that companies are actively thinking about, much less preparing for, the harms that employees will face if Roe v. Wade is overturned or critically weakened,” David Stocks, executive director of the Educational Foundation of America, which is participating in the effort, said in a statement.

The ramped-up efforts are the latest example of stakeholders calling out companies to explain why their political action committees give to politicians whose agenda conflicts with publicly stated corporate values, a practice BlackRock Inc., the world’s largest asset manager, warned could harm them in the long run.

In his annual letter to CEOs published Tuesday, BlackRock CEO Larry Fink, a leading figure in the ESG movement, said company leaders must have clear and consistent values in the face of growing polarization in society and politicization from the public. Those values will ensure companies “achieve durable profitability” in the long run and that their purpose remains the “north star in this tumultuous environment.”

“Stakeholder capitalism is not about politics. It is not a social or ideological agenda. It is not ‘woke,’” Fink said. “It is capitalism, driven by mutually beneficial relationships between you and the employees, customers, suppliers, and communities your company relies on to prosper. This is the power of capitalism.”

BlackRock, which has $10 trillion in invested assets, is not a participant in the Rhia Ventures effort.

Most of the proposals to be considered by shareholders at the 14 targeted companies would require them to “regularly report on the congruence of political and electioneering expenditures during the preceding year against publicly stated company values and policies.”

All note that, while companies recruit and promote women in the workforce, executives and employee PACs have given millions to politicians and organizations that seek to limit access to abortion or reproductive health care.

Home Depot

Home Depot, the home and garden supply retailer with more than 500,000 employees and locations in all 50 states, has internally advocated for gender diversity within its ranks, according to the resolution filed by Trillium, Rhode Island’s pension fund and Tara Health Foundation.

Yet, the resolution notes in the 2016-2020 election cycles, the company gave almost $7.5 million to politicians and political organizations working to weaken access to abortion through its employee PAC and other means.

A spokesperson for the Atlanta-based company didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

“As we enter a new year that will bring more challenges to access to reproductive health, it is increasingly important for companies to be bold and protect this care for their employees and all those in their networks,” Elise Belusa, acting director of Tara Health Foundation, said in a statement.

Direct corporate donations to candidates are illegal, but employees and executives of companies can pool their contributions through PACs, which must disclose donors and expenditures and are subject to limits on both. Companies can also give unlimited amounts to groups that spend money to influence politics, some of which disclose their donors and some of which do not.

A similar resolution from the group earned nearly 38% of votes in support at Home Depot’s 2021 annual meeting. In its previous proxy statement, Home Depot said its current policies on political activity are already sufficient to provide reviews of campaign contributions thanks to shareholder feedback. The company urged investors to vote against the proposal.

“We believe that participating in the political process in a bipartisan and transparent manner, together with our encouragement of our associates to participate in the political process to address their own diverse interests and priorities, both enhances shareholder value and promotes good corporate citizenship,” the company said at the time.

Cigna, Walmart

Besides Home Depot, political spending resolutions were filed at Abbvie Inc., Amgen Inc., AT&T Inc., Charter Communications Inc., Cigna Corp., FedEx Corp., JPMorgan Chase & Co., Pfizer Inc. and UnitedHealth Group Inc. Proxy statements for shareholder proposals will be coming in the next few months ahead of their annual meetings.

Four of the shareholder initiatives called on The Kroger Co., Lowe’s Companies Inc., The TJX Companies Inc. and Walmart Inc. to outline how they will support employees who may need access to reproductive health services if Roe v. Wade is rolled back.

“Employers, as well as employees, bear these costs,” Rhia Ventures Director of Corporate Engagement Shelley Alpern said in a statement. “Women who can’t access abortion are three times more likely to leave the workforce than those who can.”

Rhia Ventures led similar proposals on values alignment in 2021 at Pfizer and others. While those did not succeed, they garnered some support. The resolution at Pfizer received over 47% of votes in support.

“The strong votes demonstrated that a growing proportion of shareholders want corporations to think twice before funding politicians without regard to their positions on fundamental issues that challenge the sustainability of the workforce, the environment, and our democratic institutions,” the organization said.

The proposals on political spending are what ESG proponents expected for the 2022 proxy season, especially after the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol during Congress’ certification of the 2020 presidential election results.

According to law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher LLP, shareholders filed 76 proposals related to civic engagement between Oct. 1, 2020, and June 1, 2021, making up about 9% of submitted proposals.

Corporations have improved their political spending oversight following the Jan. 6 attack. Some 295 S&P 500 companies now have policies for general board oversight of political spending, up 13.9% from 2020, according to a report released in December from the Center for Political Accountability and the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

“In order for companies to deliver long-term financial value to investors … they must support democracy and the rule of law,” Rhode Island General Treasurer Seth Magaziner said in a statement.

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