Halliburton Shareholder Protest
After doing interviews about the most effective ways to organize in conservative areas with the ACLU of Texas, a minister at a Presbyterian Church in Austin and a member of Code Pink in a fishing community, we decided to drive back to Houston Tuesday night to attend a Wednesday morning protest in front of the Four Seasons Hotel, where Halliburton was having its annual shareholder meeting. About 200 activists from groups including Code Pink, North Texas for Justice and Peace, Ronald Reagan Home for the Criminally Insane and Houston Global Awareness participated. Sixteen people were arrested. Unlike the cops in the Bay Area, it was clear that Houston's police officers on horse don't deal with protesters on a regular basis, and when they do, their response is intimidating to say the least.
Halliburton, the world's largest private military contractor, has more than 50,000 people working in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait. Kellogg, Brown and Root (KBR), Halliburton's engineering and construction subsidiary, is the largest U.S. contractor in Iraq, doing everything from washing troops' clothing and serving meals to building bases and collecting garbage. The company's revenue grew by 20 percent in 2004 to over $20 billion; over a third of that revenue was from the contracts in Iraq. The US Army recently awarded KBR with a $72.2 million bonus for its work in Iraq and Afghanistan. Vice President Dick Cheney ran Halliburton from 1995-2000; he still owns 433,000 Halliburton stock options worth more than $10 million, according to CorpWatch.
In a new report, called "Houston: We Still Have a Problem," CorpWatch and Global Exchange detail a number of current investigations involving the company, including an allegation by an Army official claiming that the Army Corps of Engineers illegally excluded Halliburton's competitors from bidding on Iraq contracts and a subpoena to a former KBR employee to determine whether the company over-charged for fuels imported into Iraq.
Outside of the meeting, protesters rallied with a giant "Cash Cow," calling on Halliburton to withdraw from Iraq. I asked a few passersby how they felt about the protest:
"Any kind of heat that can be drawn from this kind of activity is positive because if you don't, politicians who are in power won't respect the people. They'll just do what they want to do."
-Dave Curry, truck driver from Dallas
Dave Curry was the only passerby I interviewed who expressed support for the protesters and opposition to the war. The conversations I'm having with people who support the war are becoming laughable because they almost always contradict themselves and rarely, if ever, come up with a thoughtful, intelligent argument for "staying the course." The anti-war movement, on the other hand, often defines itself by being armed with facts and making strong, intellectual cases for opposing the war. An endless array of activists, academics and authors have written books and lengthy articles about the lies we were told, the marketing and spin involved, the profits being made and possible exit strategies. Those who support the war aren't working under the same framework. All they have to do is cheer for the team, put ribbons on their cars and sit back without worrying about the outcome. The following conversation with designer Jeff Vance is typical of what I'm finding here in Texas.
What do you think of this protest?
Everybody's got a right to protest. It's free speech.
Do you think this kind of action makes an impact?
I think they should have it somewhere else, not in the middle of downtown. There's a lot of tax payer money out here with all the police.
Do you agree with what they're saying?
Maybe 50 percent. Halliburton probably didn't do the right thing on a lot of issues, but I don't know the whole story.
What about the war?
I think the war is good.
You can't have other countries trying to rule the whole world, so I believe in the war. I do. I really do.
Do you keep up with it?
Somewhat, yes. You have to because it's part of the economy.
What about the reasons for going to war?
Well, you gotta knock people out of power that don't go with the rules and regulations. Yeah, I believe in war. I really do.
Do you think we should knock off every bad guy?
As long as we go at it with certain tactics, as long as you don't go and start bombing other countries, no, I don't believe in that.
But that's what we're doing...
Well, somewhat we are, yes, but we give them chances. We work with them and give them chances.
-Jeff Vance, designer from Houston
Inside the meeting, Halliburton CEO David Lesar heard from shareholders Medea Benjamin and Andrea Buffa of Global Exchange. I caught up with Medea Benjamin shortly after the meeting ended. She owns 100 shares of Halliburton, the minimum amount needed to attend.
What happened in the meeting?
We asked lots of questions. We could tell that Halliburton is not happy with its reputation in this country about its work in Iraq. They are very anxious to sell off or spin off Kellogg, Brown and Root. Even though they get over a third of their entire revenue from the work they do in Iraq, in terms of profits it's very low for them. They say it's one penny on the dollar and if they get some of the bonuses, they can get up to two pennies on the dollar, whereas in their other services, because of the huge profits being made on oil these days, they get 19 cents on the dollar. They also have to deal with the terrible liability of these families who are suing them because of the conditions in Iraq and so they are very anxious to spin off Kellogg, Brown and Root and get rid of this particular headache. I did ask how much money Dick Cheney is receiving every year and doesn't that seem like a terrible conflict of interest to the rest of the world and they said that he did receive about $195,000 and whether it was a terrible conflict of interest -- that's for the rest of the world to decide.
Did anything new come out of today's meeting?
To me what was new is I feel that there is a real sense of urgency to get out of Iraq for Halliburton. They have so many other opportunities they say to make more money with less headaches. The accountants who were there from the industry were also saying they have been criticized for the tremendous amount of their revenue that is now coming from government sources. It is not good for the business and they would be much better off if they were purely an energy company. Energy is where the money is now; you don't make enough money feeding lunches to the troops or doing their laundry.
What's the demographic of the shareholders?
It is at least 90 percent elderly white men. It was almost a caricature being in that room. The fact that the entire shareholder meeting lasted for 20 minutes. I have been to shareholder meetings of lots of companies from Nike to Coca-Cola to the Gap and hundreds and hundreds of people come to those and they go on for hours. They're doing it because legally they have to do it. So it's over in twenty minutes. The elderly white guys get up to leave; they don't even bother to have the breakfast that's outside for them.
How did they respond to you and your questions?
Three attorneys and two security guards followed me. Even the security woman followed me into the bathroom. They are terribly afraid of us and the attorneys said, please don't make us regret that we allowed you to come in, after giving us an incredible run around for 40 minutes. They knew we were totally, legally within our right to come in and tried to find any little loophole to keep us from there. Once we came in, we were surrounded. They were so afraid of us. It was kind of funny because we just kept laughing, saying, hey we're just going to ask questions. We had a list of 15 questions that we had written up and were allowed to give to the shareholders at the end. David Lesar came up and shook my hand afterwards and said, thank you for coming. I think they were very relieved that we didn't pour blood on the shareholders or something like that.
You're involved in so many actions across the country. How do the actions in San Francisco compare to actions in Houston?
My hat goes off to the people in Houston who do this kind of work because the police are not on our side. They are aggressive with the way they do their arrests. They are so cavalier about using their horses and the attitude is one of tremendous hostility from the very beginning, whereas in the Bay Area sometimes things have gone badly, but in general we feel that we can talk to the police and get some communication going with them. It's much more hostile here. It's very important to be supportive of groups doing these types of protests in the real belly of the beast which is in Texas. Thank goodness for these very brave Texas souls and you see real diversity here in terms of age. We have a number of people in Code Pink that are both young and elderly and I'm really delighted that the elderly people are willing to come out here and aren't scared away by the horses and the arrests.
A lot of activists here told me they feel isolated because people living near the coasts write off the red states.
I feel like we have to work much more in communities that feel isolated. Code Pink just put out a book, "Stop the Next War Now," and we're going on a 100-city tour and a lot of the cities we're going to are places like Houston, and towns in the midwest. We're trying to get off of the coasts and into the heartland of this country. You find when you go there, while the groups might be small, they are really committed, determined and incredibly well informed. We need to not only be inclusive of them, but really listen to them.