The nation’s second largest teachers union wants to throw the weight of its pension funds behind a transition to clean power.
At the American Federation of Teachers’ 87th biennial national convention in Boston this past weekend, the union overwhelmingly supported a resolution urging the union’s pension trustees to divest members’ retirement funds from fossil fuels and reinvest in “projects that benefit displaced workers and frontline communities.”
“Climate change is an existential problem that we have to grapple with,” said Betsy Drinan, former secretary-treasurer of the Boston Teachers Union — which is part of the AFT — and a member of the local union’s climate justice task force, who helped craft the resolution.
Nationwide, AFT’s 1.6 million members participate in public and private pension plans totaling $5.8 trillion, the resolution says — roughly equal to the entire annual federal budget President Biden proposed in March. Of that, an estimated $255 billion are invested in fossil fuel corporations, the resolution says.
The national AFT cannot compel each of those funds to divest from fossil fuels, but David Hughes, treasurer of Rutgers American Association of University Professors-AFT and professor of anthropology at Rutgers New Brunswick, said the resolution is still a big step.
“What the resolution does is basically say that the membership of this enormous union is offended by fossil fuels and wants to cut our ties with them in every way possible, as quickly as possible,” he said.
Hughes said he thinks the resolution could help spur retirement funds all over the country to divest from fossil fuels. He also hopes it will spark change in the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, of which the AFT is a member.
The AFL-CIO includes members who work in fossil fuel sectors who could lose their jobs in the transition to clean energy.
“We’re coming up with the money to replace their jobs,” Hughes said.
AFT Massachusetts has 23,000 members spanning K-12 education as well as both public and private higher education. Private universities handle their own employee retirement plans. Public higher education workers are part of the Massachusetts State Employees Retirement System, while public school educators’ accounts are overseen by the Massachusetts Teachers’ Retirement Association. Both of those public funds are pooled into a trust that invests all public pensions, managed by the state Pension Reserves Investment Management.
In February, that body voted to use their investments as leverage to influence polluting companies instead of divesting, making the pension fund’s managers into shareholder activists. The new AFT resolution says the shareholder activism model has “never resulted in significant change.”
A spokesman for the state pension fund said “questions of divestment are the purview of the Legislature,” suggesting that divesting would require lawmakers to pass a bill.
The resolution comes amid tremendous growth in the divestment movement. More than 1,500 institutions worldwide — including the New York City Teachers Retirement System, the entire state pension funds of New York and Maine, the cities of Boston and Baltimore, and major universities including Harvard — have committed to some form of fossil fuel divestment, according to the Global Fossil Fuel Commitments Database.
Massachusetts’ largest teachers union, the Massachusetts Teachers Association — which is not a part of the AFT — passed a resolution at its annual meeting in May calling for the state’s public retirement funds to be divested from fossil fuels.
“What we’re seeing is, educators, who are some of the most respected people, are speaking up for the long-term issue of protecting the planet,” Max Page, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said.
Drinan said she sees climate and environmental action as a key part of educators’ role in society. Children and young adults are among the most vulnerable populations to climate change, and many hallmarks of the crisis, including extreme heat and degraded air quality, have been shown to make learning in schools more difficult.
“And that’s something that we have an obligation to fix,” Drinan said.