Politics of Poverty

Inside the Johnson & Johnson shareholders meeting

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Boxes of petition signatures Boxes of petition signatures calling on Johnson & Johnson to change its ways. Photo: Oxfam DC

What happened when we took more than 172,000 of our friends behind the curtain?

Buying shares in drug behemoths may seem like an odd way to fight poverty. But as it turns out, it’s a powerful way to speak directly to the leaders of some of the world’s biggest companies.

That’s what brought us to Johnson & Johnson’s annual investor meeting in New Brunswick, NJ last week. As a shareholder, Oxfam presented a resolution encouraging the company to factor public concerns over high drug prices into its executive compensation packages. We also delivered more than 170,000 petition signatures, calling on the company to pay its fair share of taxes and stop rigging the rules in its favor.

Johnson & Johnson didn’t make it easy for us. But we like a challenge.

Ducks in a row

Oxfam’s aim as a shareholder is not to buy low and sell high. Instead, through our investor advocacy fund, we seek to influence companies to make sure they are run sustainably and invest in long-term values. We directly engage with senior company leadership and work with companies’ most influential constituency—their own investors.

We had a lot to talk about. Days before Tax Day, we released analysis showing that Johnson & Johnson and three other US pharmaceutical giants had garnered an extra $7 billion in profits thanks to President Trump’s 2017 tax cut—enough to provide health coverage for two-thirds of America’s uninsured kids. That was on the heels of our Prescription for Poverty report last fall that revealed Big Pharma was already dodging as much as $4 billion each year in taxes.

Prior to the meeting, the company’s lawyers filed a flurry of legal briefs to prevent our proposal from getting any sort of consideration by its shareholders. We fought back and the Securities and Exchange Commission ruled in our favor, permitting the vote to move forward.

Upon our arrival, police officers and private security personnel were on every street corner—in part because our friends from Doctors Without Borders staged a protest to call on Johnson & Johnson to lower the price of its medicines. When we got in, company personnel greeted us by name with no introduction—VIP service to ensure we would not disrupt the meeting.

They assigned us a handler—a lawyer from the company’s general counsel’s office—who walked where we walked, stood where we stood, and sat where we sat for the duration of the meeting. Large men wearing suits and earpieces tried to prevent us from approaching any of the company’s Board members. But armed with cheat sheets with photos and titles, we talked with more than a half-dozen of the company’s senior management team to express our concerns about the company’s tax and pricing practices.

Our call for corporate leadership

The meeting was tightly scripted, with the CEO reading his remarks off a teleprompter in the back of the room. When it was our turn to present our resolution, a giant clock ticked down from two minutes—the maximum amount of time we were allowed to describe how Johnson & Johnson’s sky-high drug prices and artificially low tax payments were robbing countries of money that could pay for vaccines, schools, and nurses.

We had two more minutes to ask the CEO whether the company would publish financial reports with basic information about revenue, profits, and taxes paid in every country in which it operates. Doctors Without Borders called on Johnson & Johnson to lower the price of BDQ, an important treatment against tuberculosis that is priced too high for many people in poverty to afford.

Turns out Oxfam wasn’t the only one concerned about their practices. Our shareholder proposal on drug pricing risks won support from nearly a third of the company’s shares.

Live your values

Throughout the meeting, Johnson & Johnson’s company credo was everywhere. Written more than 75 years ago, it commits the company to “maintain reasonable prices” and to “bear its fair share of taxes.” Every single attendee received a booklet with the credo printed on the back cover; the words were projected on the wall; and a promotional video showcased it literally being etched in stone at the company’s headquarters.

But the company’s behavior on drug prices and taxes does not match its words. That is why we attended the meeting—to speak truth to power.

We need your help to hold Johnson & Johnson accountable. Share this tweet and video from the shareholders meeting on social media to tell the company to pay its taxes, lower drug prices, and stop rigging the rules against hard-working people.

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