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A New Spring Trend for Shareholders: Corporate Accountability

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Spring is upon us, and for publicly traded companies, that means shareholder meetings -- which are usually just as yawn-inducing as they sound. Generally, companies go out of their way to create a brisk, businesslike atmosphere for these meetings, with the CEO sticking to a script and speeding through agenda items. Relatively few shareholders actually vote their proxies, let alone attend the meeting (unless the company is Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway, whose annual meeting has been dubbed a "Woodstock for capitalists"), and those shareholders who do attend can usually be counted on to rubber-stamp the proposals endorsed by the board.

But for a lot of large companies, this spring's annual meeting of shareholders will be anything but business as usual. Just last week, Citigroup shareholders took the rare step of voting against a pay increase for CEO Vikram Pandit -- a surprising outcome given that so far this shareholder meeting season, only two other companies have seen their pay increases voted down.

Undoubtedly, CEOs of other banks now have their fingers crossed in the hopes that the Citigroup outcome was just an aberration -- in particular Bank of America's Brian Moynihan, who saw his pay quadruple last year, despite his company's countless wrongdoings (documented by Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi in last month's excellent "Bank of America: Too Crooked to Fail"). However, a few days after the Citigroup annual meeting, shareholders at Ohio-based First Merit Bank also rejected a CEO pay increase, suggesting that shareholders holding CEOs accountable may be the trend this spring.

Elsewhere, angry shareholders have protested both inside and outside the annual meetings of BNY Mellon in Pittsburgh and U.S. Bank in Minneapolis, where grievances went beyond executive pay to unfair foreclosures and tax dodging. And banks aren't the only ones coming face-to-face with shareholder discontent this season -- protestors in Houston caused El Paso energy to take the unusual step of rescheduling its meeting, and in Miami, shareholders at Carnival Cruiselines pummeled CEO Micky Arison with questions about the company's offshore tax havens, prompting the company to, hilariously, replace its live stream of the meeting with elevator music.

And today, caravans of shareholders and protestors from across the country will be departing for Detroit, where General Electric is scheduled to hold its shareholder meeting on Wednesday. Organized by the The 99 % Power, a coalition of progressive grassroots and labor organizations, the protest at GE's annual meeting is intended to shine a light on some of the company's practices -- including slashing tens of thousands of U.S. jobs while at the same time receiving billions in federal tax subsidies over the last few years.

Although Chicago is 300 miles away from Detroit, 150 Stand Up! Chicago members will be boarding buses today to join the expected crowd of 1,500 at the GE meeting, because GE's federal tax dodging has a significant impact on Chicago's neighborhoods. According to Stand Up! Chicago's analysis, GE's federal tax refund in 2010 alone cost the state of Illinois $200 million in revenues -- enough to create 5,000 full-time, living wage jobs for the unemployed or provide Pell grants to an additional 50,000 low-income students.

Said Shani Smith, one of the Chicago protestors traveling to Detroit:

In my neighborhood we have been struggling to keep a mental health clinic open which we were told had to close because of budget cuts. It costs just $1 million per year to keep the clinic open. Imagine what our communities would look like if GE and other profitable corporations actually paid what they are supposed to pay. I'm going to Detroit to send a message to GE that enough is enough.