Tiananmen Square Inc.

Large corporations don’t depend on China only for cheap labor; they also seem to be adopting the practices of that country’s repressive government in the treatment of dissidents. It has just come to light that oil giant Chevron is working with Houston authorities in the prosecution of shareholder activist Antonia Juhasz, who berated executives and directors at the company’s annual meeting last May over environmental and human rights issues.

Juhasz, author of the book Tyranny of Oil and editor of an alternative annual report on Chevron, was removed from the May meeting and arrested. Rather than dropping the charges after the disruption was over, Chevron has pursued the matter. At a recent court hearing, the company pushed for Juhasz to get jail time for criminal trespass and other charges.

What happened to Juhasz was not the first time an activist was ejected from an annual meeting for speaking out. In 2004 veteran labor activist Ray Rogers was wrestled to the ground by security guards and forcibly removed from Coca-Cola’s meeting after he forcefully criticized the company for its ties to paramilitary groups involved in the murder of trade union leaders in Colombia. He was threatened with arrest but not taken into custody.

The criminal prosecution of Juhasz is a troubling turn of events. Annual meetings are the one occasion when corporations are supposed to give the semblance of being democratic institutions. CEOs and board members should endure the protests and not try to take revenge on their critics.

Some might say that the likes of Juhasz and Rogers are out to disrupt annual meetings and that they should instead work through proper channels to get their point of view across. But corporations are trying to close that avenue as well.

Corporate interests are up in arms about the Securities and Exchange Commission’s decision in August giving shareholders new powers to nominate directors to corporate boards. The move marks the beginning of the end of non-competitive board elections that have much in common with the selection of leaders in China and the old Soviet Union.

Corporations tried mightily to prevent this intrusion of democracy into their affairs. As I noted a year ago, the corporate comments submitted to the SEC about the proposal raised some ridiculous objections. The Business Roundtable claimed that the rules would violate a corporation’s First Amendment rights by forcing it to include comments by outside candidates in its proxy statement.

McDonald’s Corporation fretted that shareholders might nominate someone “who may not have even met the existing members of the Board.” Sara Lee Corporation claimed that the change would result in directors who represented a special interest rather than the interests of all shareholders – conveniently forgetting that many directors have been chosen because of their affiliation with a financial institution or other entity that has a significant relationship with the company—a suspicious practice known as corporate interlocks or interlocking directorates.

Having lost in the rulemaking process, business groups are now taking the matter to court. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable have challenged the SEC decision in the federal court of appeals in Washington. The two groups – whose legal team is led by Eugene Scalia, son the Supreme Court Justice – depict activist shareholders as a special interest whose ability to nominate board candidates would violate the First and Fifth Amendment rights of corporations. Their brief implies that the whole idea of proxy access is a plot by unions.

Echoing the current Republican talking point, they claim that the new rules would create “uncertainty.” They even play the recession card, saying: “We respectfully submit that stewardship of the national economy during these difficult economic times counsels strongly in favor of a stay.” They conclude by saying that a failure of the appeals court to put a stop to the proxy reforms would cause “irreparable injury” to public traded corporations.

At one time, such arguments would be laughed out of court. But in the current climate, with business rights being treated as sacrosanct, the challenge has a reasonable chance of success. Democracy may not be coming to Corporate America after all.

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