01/14/2014 05:07 EST | Updated 03/16/2014 05:59 EDT

Activists Need to Get Out of the Street and into the Boardroom

By any account, the Occupy Movement failed. Yes, the recent recession exposed inequality amongst the population that desperately needs to be addressed. However, is protesting in the streets and "occupying" public spaces while inconveniencing thousands of honest, hard-working citizens the best way to drive positive lasting social change in the 21st century?

Protest tactics don't seem to have evolved much since the 1960s. Technology has changed some facets of protesting, especially in terms of spreading information quickly, and organizing groups on short notice. However that same technology is also shifting power away from faceless corporate organizations and putting it back in the hands of individuals. This same technology is also concentrating power amongst fewer and fewer individuals. In the past, tycoons like Henry Ford and John Rockefeller relied on vast armies of labour to build their wealth. Today's tycoons only require a fraction of the labour utilized in the past to build the same wealth.

As fewer and fewer people are required to do work as a result of technology and automation, power is increasingly concentrated with the decision-makers and not with the average worker, thus muting the effectiveness of 1960s protest tactics. Strikes, picket lines and other forms of protest that require significant labour resources are ineffective against corporations that can use automation or outsourcing as significant bargaining chips. If this is the case, how are activists meant to effect real change? One way is in the corporate boardroom.

To ensure permanent and effective change in corporate policy, one needs to start from the top. This is something that corporate raiders and private equity investors have known for a long while. It is true that one can use the courts or government regulation to cajole corporations into changing their policies, but these methods are increasingly viewed as last resorts due to their complexity and cost. Even if an activist were successful in leveraging the legal system to enact change, the victory is not only a financially pyrrhic one but a short term one as well.

Gaining a seat on a corporate board of directors enables activists to create long lasting change that has the potential to be firmly entrenched for the long term. Boards of directors are increasingly the strategic driving force behind many corporate actions with the remainder of the corporation merely acting to execute its will. Thus, it is increasingly imperative that those who want to change business norms need to do it from the top versus the bottom.

There are numerous recent examples of why board control is increasingly critical. The recent situation between the founder of Men's Warehouse, George Zimmer, and the board of directors is the most relevant example of why board control is critical. The battle between George Zimmer and the Men's Warehouse Board of Directors will ultimately determine the overall strategic and operational direction of an entire organization, which will effect hundreds of decisions and thousands of employees.

Another example is the recent intransigence with a number of U.S. apparel manufacturers concerning the adoption of a pact to improve factory safety and standards in Bangladesh. While the earlier pact signed by a number of European and a handful of U.S. apparel manufacturers has significant teeth to many and involves the cooperation of retailers and labour groups, according to many activists, the recent U.S. lead pact lacks teeth.

While activists will continue to use traditional tactics, such as publicly shaming those U.S. retailers who are not part of the earlier pact, their efforts will more than likely prove unsuccessful. More often than not, those individuals who are looking to maintain the status quo will utilize the fast paced 24-hour news cycle and organizational intransigence to limit change. Luckily, there are signs that this organizational intransigence is slowly changing.

Recently, a number of governments have been clamouring for more shareholder involvement in the way boards are selected and run. The recent Frank-Dodd Act gave shareholders the opportunity to vote on executive compensation although it was in the form of a non-binding vote. The European Union has also been debating whether or not to introduce quotas for women to improve the overall diversity of boards.

While these actions are tentative at best, they do acknowledge a growing reality that Boards of Directors are increasing in influence and power and that for the average individual to feel empowered in today's society, greater participation is needed.

As individuals, corporations and governments are increasingly acknowledging, the old norms and stereotypes that have built our past are giving way to new norms and realities. As demonstrated with the lack of long lasting impact with the Occupy Movement, it means shedding the old 1960s protest tactics and learning new tactics for a new battlefield. The leaders of 21st century activism will lead not from the streets but from the corporate boardrooms.


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