Ben & Jerry's endorsed Occupy Wall Street today with a statement on its web site that says "The inequity that exists between classes in our country is simply immoral." There is something cool about the fact that a gigantic international dairy concern has the cojones to attach its brand to a protest movement.
But the move risks re-stoking a years-long debate about the company's own commitment to fighting "inequity," when in the 1990s it abandoned a commitment to linking its workers' pay to that of its CEO.
Ben & Jerry's once, admirably, had a 5 to 1 rule limiting the pay of its CEO -- $81,000 -- to the company's lowest paid worker. It required the CEO to raise the pay of his employees to create a pay raise for himself. Ben & Jerry's abandoned that rule in 1994 when the company couldn't find anyone to replace Ben Cohen upon his retirement.
During the 1990s, the 5 to 1 rule became a 7 to 1 rule, lifting the CEO's salary to $150,000.
By 2000, the CEO's pay rose to 17 to 1, or $504,848, not including stock options.
At that point, Ben & Jerry's was acquired by Unilever (UL) and the company stopped disclosing details about its CEO's pay. The board of directors no longer discloses its compensation either, even though board chairman Jeff Dossier claims he is "dedicated to creating a more just world." The compensation of current CEO Jostein Solheim is now a secret. That's less disclosure than is offered by Ben & Jerry's larger corporate parent.
I'm being pedantic, of course. Ben & Jerry's is a much more socially responsible company than most. Its product is delicious. I've done my share to buoy Unilever stock by consuming New York Super Fudge Chunk.
But that doesn't change the fact that Ben & Jerry's is a non-transparent conglomerate that has had a two-decade policy of contributing to economic inequality among its employees.
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