Thompson Presses LGBT Shareholder Drive

BY AMELIA LAING | In a January 29 press conference at the LGBT Community Center, New York City Comptroller William C. Thompson Jr. announced that the five New York City municipal pension and retirement funds have filed shareholder resolutions with 24 companies, pressing them to adopt written policies barring discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Most of the 24 targets are in the Fortune 500 and all are in the Fortune 1000. The number of shareholder resolutions is almost double that of the last proxy season.

s”A company can't reach its full potential if it fails to protect its workforce,” said Thompson. “Employees cannot innovate and excel in an environment that does not explicitly outlaw all forms of discrimination.”

Most of the 24 targets are in the Fortune 500 and all are in the Fortune 1000. The number of shareholder resolutions is almost double that of the last proxy season.

Thompson's announcement is the latest development in a long-standing push by the New York City comptroller's office – one frequently advanced by the state comptroller's office as well – to press corporate America for more responsible workplace and marketplace behavior regarding LGBT employees and consumers.

After the California public employees retirement fund, New York State and New York City oversee the largest government-controlled investment funds. Currently, Thompson is the leader of a board of trustees that manages more than $110 billion dollars in assets.

According to the comptroller's office, 50 companies have in recent years adopted the policies sought through the shareholder resolutions; some as soon as the initiative is undertaken, others only after one or more proxy votes demonstrate growing support for workplace fairness policies.

Already seven of the 24 companies targeted this year have moved to change their practices, and those resolutions have been withdrawn from shareholder consideration.

Joining Thompson for the announcement was Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, who is also a pension fund trustee.

“Equal treatment in the workplace is a right, not a privilege,” she said, adding that corporate America “should set a standard, must set a standard.”

The shareholder action comes as prospects for passage of the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) in the Senate, after approval in the House last fall, remain uncertain. Some observers believe that Republicans opposed to the measure may be able to muster the 40 votes to sustain a filibuster, blocking passage. Even if the measure were to pass, it would almost certainly be vetoed by President George W. Bush.

And, after much controversy, the version of ENDA that cleared the House did not include the protections based on gender identity and expression that Thompson's resolutions demand.

Melissa Sklarz, national co-chair of the Equality Project, a non-profit group that is a leading force in the shareholder movement pressing for LGBT workplace equality and good corporate behavior on LGBT issues in advertising and other marketplace conduct, also spoke.

“LGBT equality must go to the workplace,” Sklarz said. “LGBT discrimination is bad for business.”

The speakers focused particular ire on ExxonMobil, a company that has resisted implementing a formal LGBT equality policy since it rejected the old Mobil policy when the two oil giants merged in 1999. Ranking second on the Fortune 500, the company is the only one of the top 75 corporations in America without a policy barring sexual orientation discrimination. The Human Rights Campaign's Corporate Equality Index rated it a zero, and this year marks the city pension funds' eighth effort to force a change at the company.

“ExxonMobil should be ashamed of itself,” Thompson said. “Exxon argues that the measure is unnecessary, that it is committed to equality in other ways. These excuses are simply unacceptable.”

Asked whether his office is in trench warfare with ExxonMobil, the comptroller said instead he would characterize the company's posture as “a brick wall.” Thompson's office continues talking with ExxonMobil on a variety of issues of concern, but an aide to the comptroller agreed that sexual orientation and gender identity nondiscrimination remains a non-starter.

Despite ExxonMobil's defiance, Thompson is optimistic, citing increasing support from shareholders. According to the comptroller's website, support for the resolution has grown from 29.4 percent in 2005 to 37.7 percent last year.

Gotbaum predicted that continued pressure will help ExxonMobil “see the folly of what they're doing.”

“We're not going to go away,” Thompson said. “There's a better chance that ExxonMobil will go away before we do.”