Mainline church groups take aim at companies trading with communists
In a new departure for churches in the corporate-responsibility movement, two stockholder resolutions have been filed this year on corporation trade with communist countries.
The Episcopal Church has filed a resolution with IBM regarding computers for the Soviet Union. And the United Church of Christ Board for World Ministries has filed resolutions with 21 corporations seeking data about trade with all the communist countries of Eastern Europe.
These are among some 90 resolutions church bodies have filed for action in this year's annual meetings, most of which occur in the spring.
A compilation published by the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility here shows that, as in past years, many resolutions challenge corporate activity related to South Africa and the third world, in addition to such domestic issues as employment practices, activity endangering health and the environment, bank redlining, and military sales.
The center, an agency related to the National Council of Churches but operating under its own board, lists the resolutions pertaining to communist countries among those filed "independently."
But Timothy Smith, the center's director, said this was only because the sponsors developed them after his board decided which issues the staff would work on this year. The center itself has no policy, he said, but only assists its member bodies -- 14 Protestant denominations and more than 180 Roman Catholic religious communities -- with whatever issues they choose to pursue.
Church involvement in the corporate-responsibility movement took its present form toward the end of the 1960s, largely as an outgrowth of concern about racial justice and the Vietnam war.
As churches protested corporation employment practices, involvement in white- ruled areas of southern Africa and manufacture of war materials, they began reassessing their position as part owners of corporations.
Though the total is unknown, the churches have developed fairly substantial stockholdings through pension, endowment, and reserve investments. The Episcopal Church owns some 20,000 shares of IBM, for example, and several church portfolios include thousands of shares in dozens of other companies.
Many church leaders have come to believe this ownership gives them both a moral responsibility for what the corporations do and an opportunity for raising issues in a forum that will require other stockholders and management to give some attention.
The attempts now being made for the first time to raise the issue of business dealings with the communist world appear to result from a desire for greater consistency and from the impact of some recent events.
Charles Cesaretti, a minister whol staffs the Episcopal Committee on Social Responsibility in Investments, said the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan led the church's Executive Council to condemn the action by resolution and then ask his committee to take the issue into account.
Surveying the church's portfolio, he said, IBM computers appeared to be the only trade item that might contribute significantly to military aggression or repressive action internally.
"We decided the situation was much like South Africa," he said. "If we object to selling computers that South Africa will use in keeping track of people, in good conscience we must object here. We need to be consistent."
The resolution, identical in wording to another being filed with IBM this year regarding South Africa, calls for a policy not to "make or renew any contracts" except for computers used "exclusively for medical or humanitarian programs, provided the corporation can monitor such use."
Howard Schomer, a recently retired executive of the United Council board who now staffs its corporate-responsibility work as a consultant, said similar resolutions had not come earlier because, in part, trade with the Soviet bloc was less significant in earlier years. But he also connected current concerns to Soviet action in Afghanistan and other countries, violations of the Helsinki accords, and an "increase of pressure on Christians and Jews."
Mr. Schomer stressed, however, that his church was not accusing the corporations of doing anything improper at this point, but only seeking informating it thought shareholders should have in hand whenever questions are raised. He also emphasized that his church still supports detente, and continues its own program o f strengthening church ties in Eastern Europe.