Every year, corporations hold their annual shareholders’ meeting. For most, it’s a time to impress shareholders with polished presentations of the past year’s earnings and entice them with future plans for more growth and more revenue. For abusive corporations like McDonald’s and Coke, it’s also a time to paint a rosy business picture while masking their ruthless practices that harm people and the planet.
And for Corporate Accountability, it’s the perfect time to make sure corporate executives, board members, and shareholders are forced to contend with the deadly effects of these corporations’ actions.
This year, we exposed the abuses of both McDonald’s and Coke during what would have otherwise been empty PR events.
McDonald’s basement meeting
McDonald’s shareholders’ meeting in 2019 was a clear indication of the impact we and our allies have made challenging the food giant’s abuses over the years. When we first started attending the meetings, the corporation proudly held their meeting on their sprawling campus in Chicago’s Oak Brook suburb, offered items from their breakfast menu before the meeting started, and entertained the packed room with sneak peeks of ads and self-congratulatory speeches from many top executives.
Almost a decade into our campaign to challenge McDonald’s predatory marketing of junk food to kids and its abusive labor practices, May’s meeting was a markedly different scene. Even though the corporation had spent millions of dollars on a new headquarters in downtown Chicago, it chose to hold its meeting in a less accessible location: tucked in the basement of a hotel near the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. Barely half an hour long and attended by just a handful of shareholders (fewer than 20), it was tightly controlled with very little opportunity for shareholders to speak or ask questions.
But we managed to be among the few people who did. We spoke truth to power, pointing out that just two days before, McDonald’s workers filed 23 complaints of sexual harassment, workplace retaliation, and gender-based discrimination, which added to the ten complaints filed last year. And we highlighted the fact that educators are organizing to block McDonald’s from marketing to schoolchildren—as evidenced by the decision of the second largest teachers’ union in the country to formally reject corporate-sponsored fundraisers for schools, like McTeacher’s Nights.
While the meeting progressed, Fight for 15 workers and labor rights activists rallied outside the meeting to demand that McDonald’s take concrete steps to address sexual harassment in stores, stop attacks on workers’ right to a union, and pay workers a living wage.
And despite the corporation’s attempts to use the meeting as a chance to bolster its brand, the media coverage focused on the corporation’s abuses, as raised by our allies and us.
Coke’s political interference exposed
At Coca-Cola’s shareholders’ meeting, we joined with public health allies from Latin America. We were there to highlight the corporation’s disturbing history of political interference in public health policymaking, and to support a shareholders’ resolution that demanded the corporation’s board of directors produce a report — with independent review — on how Coke’s sugar products and its marketing to children are affecting public health and their own business.
Among its many abuses, Coke has been spending millions to help elect industry-friendly politicians and distort science. It’s seeking to block the rising tide of public health policies around the world, which are aimed at reducing the negative health impacts of sugary beverages.
Corporate Accountability teamed up with Dr. Esperanza Cerón Villaquirán, the head of Colombia-based consumer advocacy group Educar Consumidores to bring these issues to light. But Coke executives prevented Dr. Cerón Villaquirán the opportunity to speak. Dr. Cerón Villaquirán, who has experienced the soda industry’s personal and political intimidation firsthand, was denied a chance to speak not once, but three times over the course of the meeting.
Afterwards, she said:
“What were executives afraid of hearing today? They cannot hide behind a podium forever: Coke must stop interfering with policies our countries try to adopt to prevent the obesity epidemic — an epidemic that Coke’s products fuel.”
But while Coke tried to hide, we broadcasted the truth online and across social media. And our interventions made clear that Coke is a corporation that’s fueling a public health epidemic and attempting to manipulating policymaking for its profit motive.
Speaking truth to power at shareholders’ meetings is just one of the many ways we rein in corporate power. Together with our allies and members we will continue our long-term campaigning to make it more difficult, expensive, and ultimately impossible for corporations like Coke and McDonald’s to continue their abusive practices.