Guns, Gas and Governments: Why Teacher Pension Divestments Are Complicated

If a teachers union wants a pension board to divest, it will get a friendly ear. But many times, it will also meet with foot-dragging and resistance

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The mass murder of 19 students and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, has prompted calls for action. Among the proposals are for public pension systems to rid themselves of investments in companies that manufacture guns and ammunition.

“Simply put, the money that gives these teachers a chance at a long and happy retirement should not go to the industries that threaten to cut their lives and the lives of their students short,” wrote former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in a letter to officers of the New York State Teachers Retirement Fund.

The fund has approximately $13 million invested in the weapons industry, out of a portfolio totaling over $148 billion.

The people who sit on boards of teacher pension systems are required to make sound financial investments in order to maximize returns to the fund. Bad investments mean shortfalls that must be made up by taxpayers and the teachers themselves.

While not in control of those decisions, teachers unions have enormous influence over pension boards. For example, the current chair of the California State Teacher Retirement System (CalSTRS) board is a former local teacher union president and former chair of the California Teachers Association political action committee.

So if a teachers union wants a pension board to divest, it will get a friendly ear. But many times, it will also meet with foot-dragging and resistance.

Pension boards often face divestment demands. Along with firearms, other targeted investments include fossil fuels, tobacco, privately run prisons and companies doing business with specific governments.

In 2013, after the Sandy Hook massacre, the CalSTRS board voted to divest from firms making weapons that were illegal to own in California. It sold $3 million worth of publicly traded stock but maintained its shares in a private equity firm that owned the company that made the rifle used at Sandy Hook.

In 2018, activists wanted CalSTRS to divest from retailers that sold guns in the state. That would have included a large number of companies, including Walmart, and the board refused.

Fortune reported the same year that teacher pension funds in 12 states owned stock in gun companies.

The New York State Teachers Retirement System announced at the end of 2021 that it would divest from fossil fuels, but it instituted a lot of qualifications and a long timeline. The board said it would soon develop a divestment policy.

CalSTRS already has a divestment policy, but it’s not designed to please activists. The board believes in “direct engagement” with the targeted firm in an effort to get it to change its ways.

The policy states that divestment “would eliminate our standing and rights as a shareowner

and foreclose further engagement”; would “have negligible impact on portfolio companies or the market;” and could result in “increased costs and short-term losses” which could “compromise CalSTRS’ investment strategies and negatively affect investment performance.”

The board recently came out in opposition to a bill in the state legislature that would require fossil fuel divestment.

Still, it isn’t always a slog. Pension systems reacted quickly to calls for divestment in Russian securities to respond to the invasion of Ukraine. But as The 74’s Kevin Mahnken reported last March, sanctions against Russia have as close to universal support as anything can possibly have these days, and disentangling investments is still a difficult, painful and time-consuming matter.

First, you have to define what constitutes a Russian investment. Then, you have to determine whether unloading them all at once incurs penalties. And who will buy them, probably at rock-bottom prices?

Mahnken wrote that “not only are teachers unaware of the scope of their exposure to the Russian economy, but so are the pension systems themselves.” Public pension systems control such gargantuan amounts of money that it’s tough to keep track of it all.

It doesn’t matter what policies you favor. If you don’t want your money, or the public’s money, invested in a specific way, it will take more than just a petition, a bill, a protest or a press release to get it done. It requires research, scrutiny and transparency just to track those dollars from your pocket to their final destination. And even if it’s possible, it requires a level of commitment few have demonstrated so far.

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