It was training night at the offices of Share Action in Druid Street, south-east London, and a man named Jo Beardsmore was preparing would-be activists to take on some of the big corporations at their own annual general meetings (AGMs). Jo was telling everybody what to expect: a lot of shareholders turn up just to get the free stuff. You see people decanting jugs of orange juice into their water bottles. (In fact, I knew about this because I had an uncle who, before he died, used to buy 10 shares in each major brewery and give one to each of his nine best friends, then they'd all go to the AGM for a kind of booze hounds' gala. The salient part of that sentence is "before he died".)
In the 1980s, people would buy one share to stage a protest, and for a while it was not unusual for the board to sit behind a Perspex screen in case people tried to egg them. Today, shareholder action is much more strategic. You don't just buy a share, bowl up with an egg and hope for the best. This training, complete with a role play at the end, basically said: if you want to do this, do it right. Read the company report, or, if you don't have time, stick stickers in it to make it look as if you have. Plan and rehearse your question. Make it count.
Share Action is the most tenacious, nerdily optimistic shareholder action group in the country. Their US counterparts, Sum of Us, have had some concrete successes this year (not least their part in the Burberry pay-packet revolt), but both sometimes sound overwhelmed by the corporate arrogance they are up against. It's a David and Goliath story all right, in which you can't help but feel tiny and meaningless, against the 10- or 12-strong line of suits who'll blithely tell you that they need pounds 4m pay packages in order to attract the best people, but can't pay the living wage because that would fatally weaken their business proposition. David definitely knows how to use a slingshot, but it's very hard to say whether Goliath has actually been wounded. The two majorly dispiriting things are these: support for the status quo is massive. You can sit in a room with shareholders noisily heckling the CEO, cheering the person who asks about pay packets; but when it comes to it, they'll vote for the pay packages the board demands, often by overwhelming majorities. Second, there are a lot of people in the room, spruced up and freshly shaven, who have honestly come down from Shropshire to complain about a customer service guy who was rude to them on the phone, or that the red peppers have been persistently sub-par in their Tesco Local. It just makes you want to scream: "You people are making us all look like cranks. And after all our evening classes in how to do this properly!"
So as the AGM season draws to a close, what exactly happened in 2014? I went to the AGMs of some of the most unpopular, contentious companies - corporations whose workers were on strike, or who were allegedly implicated in the operation of drones. I wasn't always allowed in, but normally I was. I got live updates from others, including Royal Mail (whose issue is the open scandal of its pay ratios), and this week Vodafone (who have a case to answer over their reluctance to pay UK corporation tax). In May, I went with Ritzy cinema workers to demand a living wage from Cineworld, the chain's parent company. In June, I went to Tesco's to see Amy Bradley (and 11-year-old Lucas Pinco) also ask about the living wage. In July, I went to BT, where Kevin Lo asked about their cables enabling US drone strikes, and Aditi Gupta asked about BT's role in covert surveillance by the British government. Without exception, the answers were extremely bland.
But the point is that the response isn't the point: the point is that they let the genie out of the bottle. "I didn't think they would budge that much," Lo said equably. "But we walked out on a little bit of a high."
Lo is from Reprieve, and his challenge is this: "BT basically built a comms line between RAF Croughton and a US base in Djibouti that the US military flies drones out of. It's the core of US drone operation, flying 24/7 into Yemen and Somali. It's undeclared warfare." The reply, from BT chairman Michael Rake, was: "We provide telecommunications to anyone who can pay our bills. We do not look to, nor can we possibly know, how people plan to use their telecommunications equipment. We don't have knowledge of how you use your telephone, how you use your email". (This was a little ironic in the light of the surveillance issue.) "The US government is a customer of the company, they pay their bills, they are legally entitled to our services and we are legally entitled to sell to them." It was so uncompromising, delivered in such a tetchy, dismissive way, that I took it as defeat. But Lo said the gains were important. "They made their position so explicit. They've always hinted that they didn't know and they didn't want to know. Now they've said that."
Gupta, whose question was answered in a similarly offhand way, was heartened by support from other shareholders. "I remember saying to Kevin that I was terrified, because I am really scared of public speaking. But once I got up there, I was annoyed that he wasn't answering my question and all I could think of was how to make him answer." Catherine Howarth, head of Share Action, said, "People say this is one of the most empowering things they've ever done. Of course, you don't get instant satisfaction when you engage power. But just to do something is empowering."
Marc Cowan, two months before, went to Cineworld's AGM in the Wandsworth multiplex. He and his colleagues have been striking for a living wage from the Ritzy Cinema, a member of the Picturehouse Group, which is owned by Cineworld. He and two others had bought a share; I went as a guest and the woman on the door said, "no guests", even though she had a giant stack of orange cards marked "guest". I asked her her name, just to avoid calling her "woman on the door" and she, taking this for open hostility, called security. It was the most thrilling thing that has happened to me since my May Day riot days. Whether they're fanning out ahead of Gavin Patterson (chief executive of BT) as he descends the stage, or refusing entry to innocuous though perhaps not very smartly dressed Cineworld employees, security guards tell a truer story than brochures. We are, since automatic pension enrolment, pretty well all shareholders in one or a number of large corporations. But when they say "our duty is to shareholders", they don't mean the ones with a handful of shares who might also work for the company. One's importance as a shareholder is squarely ranked by wealth.
Anyway, Marc, having asked his question, got 20 minutes afterwards with Mooky Greidinger (CEO of Cineworld) and Lyn Goleby (CEO of the Picturehouse group). "She said we were all promising young members of the public, and we could work for them," he says. "She offered us a job, basically. And I said: 'I have no interest in working for a company that doesn't respect their staff.'" I thought he already worked for her? "Well, yes, but we're at the bottom of the ladder. Her view is that if we want to climb, we can climb. And my view is that even the people at the bottom deserve to be paid enough to live on."
The Tesco answer was the one I was expecting the most from, but the one that delivered the least. Lucas Pinco stood up and said: "I hope you remember me from the Tesco AGM three years ago. I was eight, and as you can see, I have grown since then, and so has the Living Wage campaign. We have had some good conversations but now we need to make some concrete progress." The room was all his. But CEOs have been in this game long enough not to say anything rash just because there's a kid in the room. Philip Clarke, the group's chief executice officer, said half-querulously: "They get more than the living wage, if you include the benefits in the package, a 10% discount on Tesco's goods. Tesco's pays its staff 5-8% more than every single one of its competitors."
"His answer was pre-packaged, well prepared and defensive," Howarth said afterwards. "The fact is, the Living Wage campaign does take employee benefits into account, but only when they're cash convertible. Not when they're in the form of a pension, or gym membership." I find it quite distasteful that they'd include the staff discount, so are effectively paying their workers partly in food.
This week Lisa Lindsay, from Sum of Us, told me, "The status quo unfortunately isn't static. It's deteriorating. The shareholder season in the northern hemisphere is almost over. So we're regrouping to see what to do next. Palm oil will continue to be big, and neonics [the pesticide that is thought to kill bees, and has already been banned in the EU]. Lobbying and corporate political spending will still be a big deal, though that isn't a problem for you guys. CEO pay and low pay will be on the agenda - what could be really interesting is if people started proposing a policy of a ratio."
The difficulty is that many of the objections are against the whole structure of the business; it's taken as a given, since you're masquerading as a shareholder, that you're as interested in profit as the board is. But most of the time, the problems stem from putting profit before everything else. As Lindsay says, "From the point of view of shareholder value, you can't ask an oil company to completely stop producing oil. You can't have a shareholder engagement programme that advocates terminating the business."
The arrogant circularity of market fundamentalism is exhausting to approach; and, more than energy, it also takes courage, to approach it on its own turf. The payoff is rarely immediate or concrete - but there is a payoff, which is that the terms of engagement are laid out: in order to make a profit, x number of workers have to be paid less than they need to live on; in order to stay "in business", our CEO has to earn 148 times more than the cleaner. Just to get this said out loud is fundamental to the process of asking whether it's right or not. Plus, you do get a sandwich, and a tiny share portfolio.
David and Goliath . . . Amy Bradley of campaign group Share Action at Tesco's 2014 AGM, delivering a petition asking for a living wage for all staff; below, at BT's AGM, Aditi Gupta (left) asked about BT's role in covert surveillance by the British government, and Kevin Lo (right) asked about their cables enabling US drone strikes