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Shareholder activism is increasing

When asked about shareholder activism, Verizon spokesman Bob Varettoni said in a written statement: "We've experienced consistent shareholder interest over time, mostly involving issues that impact many large companies such as ours."

General Electric retirees have also been successful in changing company policy through the shareholder process. Kevin Mahar, 64, president of the Local 201 IUE-CWA Retiree Association near Boston, which represents communications workers, including General Electric retirees, drummed up support from other retirees and, in 1996, won what he called the largest single increase in GE pension plan history. A second cost-of-living increase took place in 2000, he says, and a third will go into effect this year. GE employees and retirees, as a bloc, are the largest single holder of GE stock. Mahar has attended the last 12 GE shareholder meetings and says he used to take on then-CEO and fellow Irishman Jack Welch: "I used a little Irish humor, and he used it back at me."

James McRitchie, a former ethics officer at a California state agency who 12 years ago started an Internet site for shareholder activists, says many retiree groups and individuals use the Internet, including blogs and online videos, to boost shareholder involvement. What's important in any campaign, he says, "is to bring issues to the attention of other shareholders."

In a sign of what's to come for investor activism, consider Eric Jackson's grassroots campaign, which thrives on new media. The Naples, Fla., management consultant, who owned barely $2,000 worth of Yahoo stock, was frustrated that the Internet portal had great potential for growth but "was going nowhere."

So he started a blog questioning Yahoo's leadership team. Then he unleashed "call-to-action" videos on YouTube, a popular online site, decrying Yahoo's poor performance and urging investors to vote against the CEO and six other board members.

Disgruntled investors with stock worth a startling $50 million got onboard, says Jackson, who attended the annual shareholders meeting in June. Chief executive Terry Semel, who'd been criticized for receiving one of the largest compensation packages in corporate America (reportedly worth more than $70 million in 2006) and the board members were reelected, but by relatively narrow margins. One week later, Semel resigned. Observers credited Jackson's online campaign and its outpouring of investor support.

"That was a good outcome," says Jackson, 35. "It's going to be more and more likely that individual investors will follow this path. You can't just say, 'I'm just one person. I only own 96 shares, therefore, who's going to listen to me?' As long as you have an argument to make and you can build a coalition, you can have an effect."

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