Sister Patricia Daly, 66, Dies; Took On Corporate Giants on Social Justice

Sister Patricia Daly, a Dominican nun who as a leader in the field of socially responsible investing took on corporate behemoths like General Electric, Ford and ExxonMobil, died on Dec. 9 in Caldwell, N.J. She was 66.

The cause was bile duct cancer, her cousin Edward Conlon said.

For nearly a quarter century, Sister Pat, as she was known, was the executive director and galvanizing force of the Tri-State Coalition for Responsible Investment, a group of religious orders that used the ownership of shares by their pension funds as an entree to challenge corporate executives to act more responsibly on a range of issues, including environmental protection, climate change and social justice.

“I don’t use the God card,” she told The Chicago Tribune in 2005. “I’m not saying I’m speaking for Jesus here. But if people see the Dominicans and the Jesuits on a shareholder resolution, they’re going to say, ‘These are people with some credibility.’”

Before General Electric held its annual meeting in 1998, she proposed a resolution calling on the company to publicize the dangers of eating fish from the Hudson River, which G.E.’s factories had polluted with polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. To press its case, the coalition paid for a full-page ad in The New York Times with a picture of a G.E. plant and, upending the company’s own slogan, a pointed message: “On the Hudson, G.E. Brings BAD Things to Life.”

At the meeting, she compared G.E.’s claims that PCBs were harmless to the tobacco industry’s long-espoused assertions that smoking did not damage health.

“That’s an outrageous comparison,” Jack Welch, G.E.’s chairman and chief executive, shouted at Sister Pat.

“That is an absolutely valid comparison, Mr. Welch,” she shot back.

Insisting that many studies had found no correlation between PCB levels and cancer, he warned Sister Pat, “You owe it to God to be on the side of truth.”

“I am on the side of truth,” she replied.

Her resolutions rarely if ever passed. Her proposal on PCBs won only 7.6 percent of the G.E. shares voted at the meeting.

But her efforts were a way to move the needle on climate change, worker and human rights, genetically modified foods and waste incineration, and to prod companies to take action. G.E. was eventually forced to dredge a long stretch of the Hudson from 2009 to 2015 under Mr. Welch’s successor, Jeffrey R. Immelt.

Shareholder resolutions were only one element of Sister Pat’s work.

“Pat was fearless at engaging at the table with management, where she made a passionate case for companies to do the right thing,” said Josh Zinner, the chief executive of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility, the umbrella organization to which Sister Pat’s group belonged.

In 1999, she helped persuade William Clay Ford Jr., the executive chairman of Ford Motor, to leave the Global Climate Coalition, a group of big manufacturers and oil and mining companies that lobbied against restrictions on emissions of gases linked to global warming. General Motors and Daimler Chrysler soon followed.

In a statement after her death, Mr. Ford said that Sister Pat had “helped inform Ford’s leadership around the idea that businesses could do more to disclose their emissions and align their policies with their action.”

Sister Patricia Daly at the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility conference in 2015. “She didn’t come in throwing thunderbolts,” one chief executive said. “She came from a position of love.”Credit…via Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility

Starting about a dozen years ago, Sister Pat encouraged the Southern Company, the Atlanta-based utility, to move faster toward a future of net-zero carbon power generation at its energy plants.

Tom Fanning, Southern’s chief executive, said his first encounter with Sister Pat was through a resolution she had proposed at an annual meeting. They met regularly, he said, adding that she had made her case for climate justice in a quiet, constructive manner.

“She didn’t come in throwing thunderbolts,” Mr. Fanning said in a phone interview. “She came from a position of love and sold it well.”

Patricia Anne Daly was born on Aug. 4, 1956, in Brooklyn and was raised in the Woodhaven neighborhood of Queens. Her mother, Anne (Trust) Daly, was a teacher. Her father, Joseph, worked at an import-export company.

She is survived by her mother; her sisters, Jean Randazzo, Ellen Daly and Kathleen Daly; and her brother, Michael.

Sister Pat entered the Dominican order in 1976, the year she graduated from Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., with a bachelor’s degree in religious studies.

In 1977, while still a novice, she learned about workers’ long fight to unionize at textile mills run the J.P. Stevens company — a struggle dramatized in the 1979 film “Norma Rae” — and that her order, the Sisters of Saint Dominic of Caldwell, had Stevens stock in its retirement portfolio.

Intrigued, she attended the company’s annual meeting and found a network of like-minded faith-based shareholders from the Interfaith Center. She had discovered her calling.

“There’s a whole network here, shouldn’t we be part of it?” she said in an interview with The New York Times Magazine in 2007, recalling her reaction when she returned to the convent. “And they said, ‘OK, good, that’s your job.’”

But it was not yet a full-time job. She taught religion, social justice and morality at two Roman Catholic high schools in New Jersey from 1977 to 1981, then served as associate campus minister at St. Peter’s College (now University) in Jersey City until 1987. She joined the Tri-State Coalition (now Investor Advocates for Social Justice), as her order’s delegate to the organization, in the late 1970s; she became its executive director in 1994. She was also a board member of the Interfaith Center.

For years, Sister Pat and other environmentalists had urged ExxonMobil to take significant steps to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions from its operations and products. In 2007, she proposed a resolution that called on that energy giant to set a firm date to report on its progress.

“We’re the most profitable company in the history of the planet,” she told Rex Tillerson, then the company’s chief executive (and later secretary of state in the Trump administration), at the company’s annual meeting, “but what will be our long-term health when we are really faced with the regulatory and other challenges around global warming?”

She added: “We are now, this company and every single one of us, challenged by one of the most profound moral concerns. And we have the wherewithal to respond to that.”

The proposal won 31 percent of the ballots, or about 1.4 billion shares, the largest tally for an ExxonMobil climate-change resolution. If not an outright victory, it was a page in a decades-long narrative that led ExxonMobil to put a climate scientist on its board in 2017. Three executives who recognized the urgency to address climate change joined the company’s board in 2021, nominated by a tiny activist hedge fund, Engine No. 1.

“The arc of her work led us to those victories by working from the inside and the outside,” John Passacantando, the founder of Ozone Action, an anti-global warming group, and a former executive director of Greenpeace, said in a phone interview.

In 1999, Vanity Fair named her to its Hall of Fame, applauding her as one who “translates belief into commitment and never backs down from a fight.”

Mary Beth Gallagher, who replaced Sister Pat as executive director of the Tri-State Coalition in 2017, said Sister Pat had not become frustrated when her resolutions were routinely voted down.

“She lived in hope,” Ms. Gallagher said. “We never talked about winning or losing. It was about raising consciousness and educating. If we’re not asking these questions, who will?”

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