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Policy for gays an issue at Ford
Investors asked to vote on proposal

BY SARAH A. WEBSTER

DETROIT FREE PRESS BUSINESS WRITER

• Companies with same-sex health care
Ford Motor Co., which posted a $1.2-billion loss during the first quarter and has seen its share price fall 6% this year, will face its shareholders today at the company's annual meeting in Wilmington, Del.

With shares closing at $7.06 Wednesday, chairman and CEO Bill Ford will face a tough crowd as investors gather to vote on a variety of proposals.

Aside from the election of 12 directors, down from 15, shareholders also will cast their ballots on a range of other proposals. That includes one that aims to change the company's equal employment opportunity policy to exclude reference to sexual orientation.

Shareholders such as Dr. Robert Hurley of Alton, Ill., who proposed the amendment to the employment policy, are unhappy with Ford's recent performance. "The stock is going down," he said.

Ford is in the early months of executing a 6-year turnaround plan, dubbed the Way Forward, which aims to eliminate 34,000 jobs, idle 14 plants and improve market share, among other goals.

But the company is off to a rough start and faces a challenging future.

On Tuesday, Ford acknowledged in a federal filing that its global market share likely will remain flat this year and that new corporate average fuel economy rules, which would require more fuel-efficient light trucks, represent a "significant challenge" to Ford.

In the United States, Ford's market share has fallen to 18.5% during the first four months of the year, down from 19.2% a year ago. And sales of some of the company's most-profitable vehicles, namely big SUVs, have taken a hit as fears of rising gas prices seem to be influencing consumer behavior.

The automaker hopes new cars and trucks will help lift the company's fortunes. But two of the critical new vehicles set to launch later this year are full-size SUVs: the Ford Expedition and Lincoln Navigator.

What's more, the automaker has been under attack by conservative groups. One of them, the Tupelo, Miss.-based American Family Association, called for a boycott of Ford products because of the company's policies toward gays and lesbians.

Hurley's proposal touches on those themes, but Hurley said he is not working directly with the AFA.

Ford's policy says that "employment and advancement will be available on a nondiscriminatory basis -- without regard to race, color, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, handicap, or veteran status. We take affirmative action in accordance with law to have minorities and women represented appropriately throughout the workforce and to provide qualified handicapped persons, disabled veterans and veterans of the Vietnam era opportunity for employment and advancement."

Hurley said the policy is bad business for Ford, which sells many of its products in more conservative areas.

While Hurley told the Free Press in an interview that he doesn't expect his measure to pass, he said he wanted to get the issue on the ballot to protest Ford's policies. The proposal asserts that individuals who engage in homosexual behavior are at greater risk for developing certain sexually transmitted diseases, such as HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

"I think it needs to be brought to the attention of the board of directors," he said.

Ford recommends that shareholders reject Hurley's proposal.

He said he has not made similar proposals at other companies. He once tried to stop Anheuser-Busch Cos. from advertising to gays explicitly, but he said federal regulators wouldn't allow a vote on such a management matter.

In all, Ford shareholders will vote on 10 proposals today, including measures the board opposes that would:

Require Ford to disclose all executives who make more than $500,000 annually as a base salary.

Require Ford to disclose how much it spends to influence government regulations on fuel economy.

Link compensation of Ford's executives to reduction of greenhouse gases.

Require the company chairman to have no management duties.

Mandate that the company publish a scientific report on global warming.
 
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