City of Portland rolling back Walmart bond investments

Portland City Commissioner Steve Novick announces the beginning of the City’s disinvestment in Walmart bonds.  He was joined by members and leaders of UFCW Local 555,  Yvette Brown of OUR Walmart (right), and  Pastor Tara Wilkins (center) of Bridgeport United Church of Christ.
Portland City Commissioner Steve Novick announces the beginning of the City’s disinvestment in Walmart bonds. He was joined by members and leaders of UFCW Local 555, Yvette Brown of OUR Walmart (right), and Pastor Tara Wilkins (center) of Bridgeport United Church of Christ.

The City of Portland on May 15 put into action its new “socially responsible investment policy” by disinvesting in a $9 million Walmart corporate bond. It is the first of five bonds totaling $36 million that the City won’t renew when they mature.

The action was applauded by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555.

“The Portland City Council is to be commended for the effort to create a socially responsible investment policy that respects workers’ rights, our environment and the responsible use of Oregon taxpayer dollars,” said Local 555 Secretary-Treasurer Jeff Anderson.

The investment policy was introduced last October by first-term Commissioner Steve Novick.

The City’s investment portfolio ranges from $940 million to $1.29 billion and averages about $1.08 billion during the year. It can’t invest in the stock market, but it can put money in low-risk U.S. Treasury securities, U.S. Government securities, bank CDs, and corporate bonds.

“We have a bunch of bonds, and it turned out we had no criteria to determine what company’s bonds we would or would not buy,” Novick said at a May 15 press conference announcing the disinvestment in Walmart.

Novick talked to his colleagues and they concluded that it was reasonable to have a policy to guide the City on what bonds it would purchase. The policy they adopted in October is to look at how a company treats its workers — and its general ethical conduct, whether it abuses market power, its impact on human health and the environment.

“We looked at Walmart and we looked at its record of abusing workers, its record of abusing market power, the massive bribery scandal in Mexico, and we concluded that it was a company where it’s common knowledge that they violate a number of these principles —we can put them on the do not buy list. So that’s what we did,” Novick said.

In addition to prohibiting the purchase of additional Walmart bonds, the City Council created a temporary advisory committee to come up with a process to apply social criteria to its investment portfolio. The advisory committee will make its recommendations to the City Council sometime after July 31.

“From what I can tell, no other U.S. city has looked at socially responsible investing in quite the same way as Portland,” Novick said. “I’m hopeful other cities and states take note and adopt similar investment principles to hold companies accountable and align our investment policies with our values.”

At the May 15 press conference, Novick was joined by Yvette Brown, a fired Walmart employee-turned-activist with the OUR (Organization United for Respect) Walmart campaign in California; Pastor Tara Wilkins from Bridgeport United Church of Christ; and Bob Marshall, a Local 555 union representative and organizer.

Marshall said the business model of many U.S. corporations is to privatize the profit and socialize the cost of doing business. “Many corporations get huge tax breaks and pay low taxes while throwing the cost of workers’ health care and food assistance programs on to the taxpayers. The companies keep all the profit and the taxpayers foot the bill because corporations like Walmart do not pay a living wage or provide proper health care for employees.”

A report by the Oregon Department of Human Services several years ago listed Walmart as the top employer whose workers receive public taxpayer assistance.

Brown said in her two years working at Walmart she barely made minimum wage and couldn’t get enough hours to qualify for benefits, let alone  live on. She said workers were treated with a fundamental lack of respect by managers, who would constantly bully and ridicule her. It got so demeaning, she said, that  “I finally had to stand up to make a difference.” She and her mother took part in an unfair labor practice strike last June “to hold Walmart accountable.”

She was fired for speaking out.

“The company refuses to listen to our concerns, and when we speak out, Walmart retaliates,” she said.

[The National Labor Relations Board in January charged Walmart with illegally firing some 60 workers in more than a dozen states who where participating in legally protected strikes and protests.]

Novick said he looks forward to reviewing the advisory committee’s recommendations, as well as a proposal for a permanent process to implement the principles for socially responsible investment.

The City still has four Walmart corporate bonds valued at $27 million. Two $5 million bonds mature Oct. 25, 2015. A $2 million bond and a $15 million bond mature April 11, 2016.

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