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How the Left Is Keeping Corporate America in Line

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A single activist group, SumOfUs, has been especially effective at bringing change to some major US firms.

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MINYANVILLE ORIGINAL A wave of corporate and economic change is upon us. Begat by the Arab Spring, the "American Autumn," that really took shape on our shores last September with the birth of Occupy Wall Street, has now entered its third season. Although it's hard to credit OWS with any tangible accomplishments (certainly on a policy front), the group did start a national dialog about financial disparity and injustice that gave other, more organized groups the momentum to take action.

Within the space of less than a year, protest movements and campaigns have been launched throughout the country aimed at corporate America. The efforts of one particular organization, SumOfUs, have been especially effective. Founded in November by Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, and incorporated in Washington, DC, the "global movement of consumers, investors, and workers" has found considerable success in using its "Fighting for people over profits" motto to dictate how businesses should conduct themselves.

Trader Joe's and the Fair Food Agreement

Letter writing and telephone campaigns really do work. On the heels of news that Trader Joe's refused to ink its signature next to Taco Bell (YUM) and McDonald's (MCD) on the Fair Food Agreement, SumOfUs managed to force its hand.

Joining the year-long fight waged by Coalition of Immokalee Workers (or CIW) who demanded humane treatment and fairer wages for its tomato pickers (who earn as little as $50 for each 12-hour shift), SumOfUs rallied the Trader Joe's customers among its membership to threaten a boycott. In all, 65,000 SumOfUs members sent messages, made phone calls to the grocery chain's headquarters, and visited locations in 40 cities across the country to voice their dissent.
Within three weeks of the SumOfUs campaign, Trader Joe's conceded to the CIW's demands and signed the Fair Food Agreement in February. Farm hands will now earn at least one more penny per pound of tomatoes picked.

ProFlowers and AOL: "Dump Rush!" Campaign
After Rush Limbaugh made national news in late February for his "slut" comment directed at birth control advocate and Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke, SumOfUs had a lot of company in calling for advertisers to pull sponsorship. Initially setting its sights on the Liberty Media (LMCA) subsidiary, ProFlowers, SumOfUs members flooded the e-commerce floral service with emails. Within a matter of hours, advertisements were suspended on Limbaugh's radio program.

The SumOfUs "Dump Rush!" campaign turned next to AOL (AOL) and, a day later, the telecommunications giant followed suit. According to the SumOfUs petition (and confirmed by the Washington Post), over 140 other companies dropped commercials from the show. However, it appears that many of these advertisers have opted out of any "controversial" show -- not just Limbaugh's.

Starbucks and Gay Rights
SumOfUs campaigns can also take the form of praise for corporations, expressing gratitude for doing what the organization believes is the right thing. Such was the action initiated in support of Starbucks (SBUX) in March for its stance on same-sex marriage legislation in Washington state. In actuality, the SumOfUs "Thank Starbucks" effort was more of a counteroffensive against the conservative National Organization for Marriage (or NOM) for its familiar-sounding "Dump Starbucks" boycott.

Outnumbering by 18-fold the signatures collected by NOM against Starbucks' gay marriage position, SumOfUs created a virtual thank-you card for the coffee company with nearly 650,000 John Hancocks. Then, in early April, dozens of SumOfUs members joined Washington United for Marriage in presenting a giant physical version of the card to Starbucks officials at the company's headquarters in Seattle.

The Ethical iPhone Campaign
Piggybacking on the New York Times exposé of the deadly working conditions at Apple's (AAPL) factories in China, SumOfUs launched the Ethical iPhone Campaign to hold the company's feet a little closer to the fire.

The group was enlisted by two Apple workers from Suzhou, China, named Guo Rui-qiang and Jia Jing-chuan, to tell the story of how they developed permanent nerve damage from the chemicals used in cleaning iPhone touch screens. SumOfUs translated and circulated a letter written by the workers and brought it, along with a 130,000-person-strong petition, to Apple management during a shareholder meeting in February.

Pressure from SumOfUs and other labor rights organizations persuaded Apple to take the first step in addressing labor violations: Bringing in the Fair Labor Association (or FLA) to launch an investigation into whether or not its overseas manufacturers are adhering to its Supplier Code of Conduct. This move, however, was greeted with skepticism by SumofUs since the FLA is not a truly independent NGO and may have Apple's own interests at heart.

The clearer victory for SumOfUs (and the other pro-labor forces at work) came when Apple publicly committed to reducing illegal overtime hours and increasing worker wages.

London Olympics and Dow Chemical
This fight can't go into the SumOfUs "win" column. It's not over yet.

Progressive groups, including SumOfUs and Change.org, are trying to right a nearly 30-year-old wrong committed by Dow (DOW) and its subsidiary Union Carbide India Limited by urging the London Olympic organizing committee to drop the chemical company as a sponsor of this summer's games.

The protest surrounding Dow concerns the 1984 toxic gas leak from its pesticide plant in Bhopal, Central India which caused one of the world's worst industrial catastrophes and claimed tens of thousands of lives and saddled, by some accounts, over half a million people with permanent disabilities. Residents in surrounding communities reportedly suffer to this day from toxic water and soil contamination because Dow never cleaned up its mess.

SumOfUs, Change.org, and the Indian Olympic delegation are currently petitioning Lord Coe, the Chair of the London Olympics, to reject the Dow sponsorship unless and until the company assumes full responsibility for the disaster.
No positions in stocks mentioned.

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