(Note - updated with audio of meeting and video of protests taking place outside, at bottom of post.)
I attended the GE shareholder meeting in Detroit today. The beginning of the meeting was disrupted by people from the 99% Spring movement and 99% Power respectfully shouting, "Pay your fair share!" After they were "escorted" out of the meeting (large protests continued in front of the building) GE's Chairman Jeff Immelt proceeded to grant the shareholders in attendance the legally required pro-forma, everything-already-decided, dismissive hour of pretend transparency. It was a remarkably pro-forma, non-democratic event when you consider the size of this company and its importance to our economy and country.
The meeting took place at Detroit's GM Renaissance Center, which is a large building on the Detroit's waterfront. There was heavy security, and you needed to have advance shareholder passes to get in. (I did.) There were refreshments while people waited for the doors to open into an ballroom set up with a stage with large TVs on either side of it, and about 1500 chairs for shareholders. About 3/4 were eventually filled, many by protesters who got in by owning one share.
The meeting began at 10am with Immelt saying "We like Detroit ... happy we brought jobs here ...Michigan was not viewed as "business-friendly" but we set up a big center in Van Buren Township... GE is the world's biggest infrastructure company..." Outside you could still hear the 99% Spring demonstrators loudly chanting "Pay your fair share."
Update: See “Enough is Enough,” Thousands Rally Against GE for news about what was happening outside.
"Fully Compliant With Tax Laws"
Immelt introduced the Board, some of whom were even present. Then there was a brief financial overview presented by Vice Chair and CFO Keith Sherrin. Sherring explained that GE is "fully compliant with all tax laws." At the bottom of the screen displaying the presentation was the line "GE Supports Tax Reform."
This is where the problem is. GE is compliant with tax laws - but they spend tremendous amounts on lobbying to influence these tax laws. GE spends a great deal to influence the government to get the tax laws written in ways that benefit GE, and hurt the rest of us.
GE has made billions in profits, but paid zero federal income taxes from 2008 to 2010. Over the last ten years, GE’s effective tax rate has been 2.3%. Here in Michigan and around the country our communities can't even repair roads. In 2010 alone, the top five GE executives received $75.9 million. Just five people. Over the last three years, GE's executives collected $234 million.
Since 2008, GE has spent more on DC lobbyists than it paid in taxes. GE spent $84.35 million on lobbyists from 2008-2010.
The cause of our terrible economic inequality is clear: the 1% have too much power, and use that power to enrich themselves at the expense of the rest of us -- the 99%. Since 2008, at least thirty big American corporations reported big profits and paid their CEOs excessively while laying off workers and spending more on Washington lobbyists than they paid in taxes. In fact, 100 of the Fortune 500’s most profitable companies received average tax refunds of 2%.
The meeting continued with four shareholder resolutions presented. These presentations were pre-approved (not sure of the process) and each had about 3 min with a person stating the case. One was urging GE to stop developing nuclear power plants. The attitude from Immelt was that he had to allow these resolution, they get to speak, then let's move on, get this over with. He kept saying "Thank you, Bill" (or other person's name) before the speaker finished, but with an executive smile.
Then there was a quick pretend shareholder vote on the Board and issues - but we were told that 8 billion shares had already been voted and the results would be announced right after this pro-forma voting. This "voting" took about 1 minute. Then the results of the 8 billion shares voted were announced, all were about 90-95% along with Board recommendations.
The last part of the meeting was open questions. A few people came to the microphones, one urging GM to stop lobbying to ban incandescent bulbs (GM does not do this) and Immelt very dismissively said we will sell whatever people want. Another was talking about GE needing different Board members, Immelt dismissed him saying "95% of shareholders just disagreed with you." After a couple more Immelt looked at his watch and said he would allow two more brief questions. The meeting ended at exactly 11am. Immelt was obviously relieved to be have this hour of pretend transparency over with. Protests continued outside the building.
This is a quick report following the meeting. I will write about the issues presented and especially about Detroit and how a company like GE has a great deal of responsibility to communities like Detroit -- even though they will insist they do not as they collect their dividends and avoid their taxes.
Update - Here is audio of the disruption: