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Raymond J. Learsy Headshot

Exxon Mobil Shareholders Must Stop Holding Their Tongues

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Shareholders of Exxon Mobil need to speak up about unjustly high executive salaries (as in ex CEO Lee Raymond's near $400 million retirement package). Consider Manhattan pension funds, which, according to The New York Sun own $1.2 billion in Exxon Mobil stock and have significant holdings in other oil companies. In a letter to Exxon Mobil, William Thompson Jr. the city comptroller responsible for New York's pension funds and their rate of return, asked the oil giant to investigate allegations of price gouging. Thompson told the Sun, "Are short-term earnings good for the portfolio? Sure, but in the long term there is greater damage being done to the companies."

The Sun goes on to quote Exxon Mobil's CEO Rex Tillerson's comments on the Today show: "A lot of pension plans, a lot of teacher retirement plans" are among our shareholders, "and our job is to go out and make the most money for those people so their pensions are secure so that they see the benefits of our work."

Mr. Tillerson's comments were promptly rebutted by Randi Weingarten, president of the United Federation of Teachers and head of the city's Municipal Labor Council, who declared, "It's outrageous that Exxon Mobil would try to hide behind pension funds in defending their price gouging." She continued, "the pension funds have to be invested in fiscally sound ways, but there is also a social responsibility."

That Tillerson, especially in the wake of Lee Raymond's pension package, would make these statements shows how far we have drifted and how lacking the oil industry is when it comes to moral and economic leadership. Compare today's situation with the one we faced in 1962, when another industry was tone deaf to the higher needs of the nation in time of crisis. Then-president John F. Kennedy issued the following statement: "Simultaneous and identical actions of United States Steel and other leading steel corporations increasing steel prices by $6 a ton constitute a wholly unjustifiable and irresponsible defiance of the public interest in this serious hour in this nation's history, when we are confronted with a grave crisis in Berlin and Southeast Asia, when we are devoting our energies to economic recovery and stability, when we are asking reservists to leave their homes and families for months on end and servicemen to risk their lives . . ."

Where are the words today to make us understand what needs be done, where our responsibilities lie?

To paraphrase Senator John McCain the oil industry's perception at large has reached a public low point now at a level approaching that of a "satanic cult." Not only is the oil industry's sense of responsibility to the nation's greater interests lacking, but its behavior is putting at risk and into question our entire system of free markets and free enterprise. If management, and boards of directors as currently constituted are incapable or unwilling to change then it will become the responsibility of the shareholders, the pension funds, the mutual funds, and yes, even the hedge funds to force change and perception. There is much more at stake than short term profits.