Photo by Marla Maritzer
Long aggressive in the use of shareholder resolutions to pressure corporations to assume socially responsible stances, the New York City Pension Funds took an unprecedented step toward workplace equality for lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender employees on Tuesday. Comptroller William C. Thompson, Jr. and the five Pension Funds announced their proposals for 24 of America’s largest companies to adopt policies that bar discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. That number is nearly double the amount of resolutions filed on the issue in the previous proxy season.
“Today’s historic effort is the latest step in our longstanding commitment to ensuring that corporations live up to the fundamental ideals of equality, fairness and opportunity,” said Thompson during a press conference at the Lesbian, Gay Bisexual and Transgender Community Center in the West Village, where he was joined by Public Advocate Betsey Gotbaum and Melissa Sklarz, a transgender rights activist and leader of the Equality Project.
One of the largest public pension funds in the United States, serving more than 600,00 active and retired city employees, the New York City Pension Funds currently have more than $110 billion in holdings, including 30 million shares worth nearly $2.2 billion in the companies announced on Tuesday. As Comptroller, Thompson acts as investment advisor and manager to the funds, which includes pensions for cops, firefighters, teachers, and other city workers.
All of the 24 corporations named by Thompson and the pension funds are within the Fortune 1000, and many, notably the oil behemoth Exxon Mobil, challenged this year for the eighth time in a row, are within the Fortune 500. The companies are headquartered predominantly in the South and Midwest, in 14 different states, none of which has yet passed a law explicitly to protect workers on the basis of both sexual orientation and gender identity. Currently, 20 states and the District of Columbia prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and of those, only 12 states and the District of Columbia extend the protections to include gender identity. There is no federal law to protect LGBT employees from discrimination in the workplace.
“The marketplaces are much closer to reality than our elected officials,” said Daryl Herrschaft, director of the Workplace Project at the Human Rights Campaign, a leading national LGBT organization, when asked to comment on the strategy of urging corporations to adopt more progressive practices than mandated by law in most areas. “They acknowledge that the work force is much more diverse than elected officials seem willing to recognize,” he said.
Since the New York City Pension Funds began to file shareholder resolutions calling for workplace protections over a decade ago, according to the Comptroller’s Office, nearly 100 corporations have received appeals, and 50 have changed their policies as a result. Among the more recent high-profile victories was Toys R Us, based in Wayne, New Jersey. The company announced in 2005 that it would clarify its policies to bar discrimination based on gender identity, after three transgender women were attacked by employees wielding baseball bats at the Bay Ridge, Brooklyn store in December 2000.
Some critics have charged that the aggressive use of public pension funds to change corporate policy, whether it be on LGBT rights, global warming or support for terrorism, may be inappropriate, even politicized. Thompson and proponents say the practice is simply a better business model that increases profits for companies, protects employees and ultimately benefits the retirees who rely on the pension funds later in life.
“I think it is, in so many ways, looking to improve the companies we hold shares in,” said Thompson after the press conference on Tuesday, citing the city’s previous uses of shareholder resolutions to protest apartheid in South Africa, and anti-Catholic employment discrimination in Northern Ireland. “Some of it is historical and traditional in nature,” he added, “but a lot of it is just good business sense.”