When Steven Burd, CEO of the supermarket chain Safeway, cut wages and benefits, starting a five-month strike by 59,000 unionized workers, he was confident he would win. But where traditional labor action failed, a novel approach was more successful. With the aid of the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, a $300 billion pension fund, workers led a shareholder revolt that unseated three of Burd’s boardroom allies.
In The Rise of the Working-Class Shareholder: Labor’s Last Best Weapon, David Webber uses cases such as Safeway’s to shine a light on labor’s most potent remaining weapon: its multitrillion-dollar pension funds. Outmaneuvered at the bargaining table and under constant assault in Washington, state houses, and the courts, worker organizations are beginning to exercise muscle through markets. Shareholder activism has been used to divest from anti-labor companies, gun makers, and tobacco; diversify corporate boards; support Occupy Wall Street; force global warming onto the corporate agenda; create jobs; and challenge outlandish CEO pay. Webber argues that workers have found in labor’s capital a potent strategy against their exploiters. He explains the tactic’s surmountable difficulties even as he cautions that corporate interests are already working to deny labor’s access to this powerful and underused tool.
The Rise of the Working-Class Shareholder is a rare good-news story for American workers, an opportunity hiding in plain sight. Combining legal rigor with inspiring narratives of labor victory, Webber shows how workers can wield their own capital to reclaim their strength.
David Webber is a law professor at Boston University, where he won the 2017 Michael Melton Award for Teaching Excellence. He has published op-eds in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, and Reuters, and has been interviewed by television, radio, and print media, including Nightly Business Report, NPR’s Marketplace, Knowledge@Wharton Business Radio, Agence France-Presse, Reuters, and others.