Giant U.S. banks have come to expect activists at their annual shareholder meetings, usually decrying the lenders as capitalist powerhouses behind fossil fuels, gunmakers and societal inequities.

But this year, they’re being pummeled for “woke,” Marxist agendas and pledges to diversify their ranks.

As three of the nation’s largest banks kicked off the U.S. financial industry’s annual gatherings this week, conservative speakers showed up with questions, proposals and ultimatums. They’re not matching the size of the liberal-leaning crowd — their proposals garnered the least amount of supporting votes from shareholders — but they’re trying to steer the agenda nonetheless.

At Citigroup and Bank of America, the activists argued that vows to improve diversity or pay more equitably may hurt groups of people who aren’t underrepresented. At Wells Fargo, the top arranger of loans to fossil-fuel companies last year, an activist chided the bank for donating to groups fighting climate change, “which is just Marxism dressed up as environmentalism.” He also warned it not to follow Walt Disney Co. in the sort of “woke” LGBTQ advocacy that drew a backlash from “Make America Great Again” activists and Republican politicians in Florida.

“Wells Fargo needs to take a hard look at the fix that Disney finds itself in,” the speaker, Paul Chesser, director of the conservative National Legal and Policy Center’s Corporate Integrity Project, warned the bank leaders. “Stay out of politics and properly serve all its customers and shareholders.”

A call for Wells Fargo to examine whether it’s doing enough to support racial equity also fell short, but it garnered 36% support. At Citigroup, more than a third of shareholders supported a proposal that would require the bank to report how it protects Indigenous people.


Citi’s defense

Still, after she was asked how Citigroup will avoid Disney’s situation, CEO Jane Fraser stood by the bank’s efforts to create a more welcoming workplace.

“We realize not all stakeholders believe in the positions we take and that there are certain stakeholders who believe it is not the role of a company to make such statements,” she told shareholders Tuesday. “We respectfully take the view that there are times when, as an employer of more than 220,000 people, it is appropriate to engage and support how our colleagues are treated.” 

Banks want their annual meetings to be subdued affairs with questions on how businesses are performing. But because lenders have so much influence over where money flows, their venues are battlegrounds in the culture wars, with conservative activists taking pages from their liberal counterparts to air grievances and exert pressure. 

One group, the Free Enterprise Project at the National Center for Public Policy Research, submitted shareholder proposals at Citigroup and Bank of America to audit whether diversity efforts are themselves discriminatory. 

The group contends those kinds of inclusion efforts mean “the company places more value on whether an employee is a woman or a traditionally underrepresented minority than whether that individual has an objective amount of experience or educational qualifications,” Sarah Rehberg, a program coordinator for the Free Enterprise Project, said at Citigroup’s meeting. 

More often, the financial industry fields criticism over its dominance by white men and the impact that has on its workplaces, as well as its treatment of communities of color and of minority-owned businesses. In recent years, all of the biggest U.S. lenders have announced initiatives totaling billions of dollars to help address racial injustice while also promising to make more progress toward cultivating workforces that better reflect the country’s diversity.

Free Enterprise Project director Scott Shepard told Bank of America that the audit the group proposed should draw on a range of viewpoints, “including those of the center right representing the majority of Americans and almost certainly the majority of both Bank of America’s shareholders and employees.”

Both proposals failed, drawing less than 5% support in shareholder votes.