SAN FRANCISCO — Amazon’s annual shareholders meeting in Seattle’s funky Fremont neighborhood went off as expected Wednesday, with about 150 people inside and another 75 or so outside protesting.
After the shareholders and staff entered the building around 8:30 am, drag queens outside posed, pilots stood in steely lines, activists carried giant puppet-signs depicting CEO Jeff Bezos as a robot and the Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke to the crowd.
The protests were anticipated to be raucous enough that the Washington State Department of Transportation listed two potential traffic issues in the region in its Wednesday morning tweet — the Amazon demonstrations in Seattle and band Maroon 5 performing in Tacoma.
Multiple, varied groups congregated outside the building where the meeting took place.
The shareholder meeting itself was drama-free. The nine current board members running for reelection all won handily and a shareholder proposal to split the the CEO and board chair jobs failed.
Outside was more carnival-esque than angry. A line up of drag queens posed and strutted in support of No Gay, No Way, a campaign urging Amazon to place its second headquarters only in a state with strong gay rights laws.
Pilots for Amazon Air cargo, who fly Amazon cargo jets for Atlas Air and ABX Air, arrived in a large bus, attired in their uniforms. They were protesting inadequate staffing levels, which they say makes for difficult working conditions.
An activist consumer group called SumOfUs came out in support of a proposal to separate the roles of CEO and chairman of the board at Amazon. Jeff Bezos holds both positions.
It hired a plane to fly over the meeting trailing a banner that read, “Bezos Needs a Boss.”
It’s not uncommon for one person to hold the position of both CEO and board chair in a company, especially in the case of companies that have grown quickly and in which the founder is still serving in those positions, as is the case with Amazon.
However, corporate governance activists have been pushing companies to separate the jobs of board chair and CEO, especially when the CEO owns a large stake in the company as Bezos does.
A board led by an independent chair is presumed to be better able to focus on the mandate of the corporation to serve the needs of all shareholders, including independent ones, and hold the CEO accountable.
Just 26% of shareholders voted in favor of the resolution.
However SumOfUs calculated that because Amazon counts abstentions as votes and Jeff Bezos owns 16% of the company’s shares, approximately 40% of independent shareholders had actually supported the resolution.
“Amazon’s profits come at the expense of our communities, and that’s because of a lack of accountability up at the top. The lesson is simple: Jeff Bezos shouldn’t be his own boss,” said Salma Mirza, SumOfUs campaign director.
Other groups protesting at the shareholders meeting include the Service Employees International Union, climate justice group 350 Seattle, the Socialist Alternative socialist political party and community members angry at the negative impacts they say Amazon has had on their communities also plan to demonstrate.
Jackson attended in support of a proposal that Amazon enacted earlier this month after pressure from members of Congress. It asked the company to commit to a version of the Rooney Rule, which would require it to include women and minorities when it interviews for open board positions. Currently Amazon’s board is made up of seven men and three women, all white.
Amazon had originally opposed the measure but two weeks ago the board shifted course, adopting as policy the inclusion of a diverse slate of candidates for director openings.
Jackson told USA TODAY “leadership comes from the top down,” and that he was eager for Amazon to make sure its board wasn’t all white.
Amazon declined to comment on the protests.
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