By Rick Rothacker
(Reuters) - Looking to build on the Occupy Wall Street movement, activists say they're turning to corporate shareholder meetings this spring to vent their anger over economic disparity in the United States and to promote an assortment of other causes.
A group called 99% Power -- a reference to those not among the top 1 percent of earners -- says it plans actions at 36 shareholder meetings, with the first big push coming at Tuesday's Wells Fargo & Co gathering in San Francisco.
The protests could give another jolt to the 2012 annual meeting season, which has already featured a shareholder vote of no confidence in Citigroup Inc's executive compensation plan.
Organizers say they expect hundreds of protesters to target a broad range of issues from foreclosures to financing of "dirty energy" to immigrant rights to corporate taxes. The group says it will try to stop the Wells Fargo meeting from being held and force the company to hold a public "stakeholders meeting" outside.
"This is Occupy beginning the next phase," said Rainforest Action Network Executive Director Rebecca Tarbotton, who is part of the effort. "We see people hungry to take action."
Wells Fargo spokesman Ancel Martinez said the bank respects the rights of Americans to assemble peacefully and welcomes a dialogue with its stakeholders. "We will be prepared to ensure the annual meeting runs smoothly," he said.
The bank has a long history of responsible lending and community involvement, Martinez said. He stressed Wells Fargo's work with struggling borrowers that has resulted in nearly 750,000 loan modifications and the reduction of more than $4 billion in principal. He also noted the bank is a major provider of jobs, with more than 264,000 full-time employees.
Activists are expecting more protesters than in past years and are buoyed by grass-root campaigns last fall that led banks to cancel proposed debit card fees and moved disgruntled customers to shift their deposits to credit unions.
Annual meetings give protesters a chance to make their case directly to corporate leaders, said George Goehl, executive director of National People's Action and co-founder of The New Bottom Line.
"It's one of the rare places where you can engage the CEO and the board members who most of the year would blow you off," said Goehl, another 99% Power organizer.
NOT ALL SHAREHOLDERS ON BOARD
The protests are expected to draw a mix of labor union members, environmentalists, customers and clergy members. On the target list are General Electric Co, Verizon Communications Inc, Bank of America Corp, Morgan Stanley, Sallie Mae and Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
Progressive groups have used annual shareholder meetings to promote their causes for decades, said Michael Kazin, a history professor at Georgetown University and author of "American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation."
"Clearly the thrust of the Occupy movement was not to just draw attention to the 1 percent but also to what the protesters see as the evils of corporate America," he said.
It's unclear how much of an impact the protests will have, Kazin said.
"A lot of shareholders just care about the price of their stock," he said. "It can take awhile to have an impact."
(Reporting By Rick Rothacker in Charlotte, N.C.; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)