The California State Teachers’ Retirement System (or, CalSTRS) prides itself on its shareholder engagement with fossil fuel companies. However, by spending their resources, time, and energy on connecting with oil giants like Exxon, CalSTRS has failed to engage with the shareholders who matter most: their own.
This February’s Virtual Sustainability Symposium on California Teacher Pensions provided space for CalSTRS staff and beneficiaries to discuss whether the retirement system should divest from fossil fuels. When CalSTRS CIO Chris Ailman was asked whether CalSTRS had polled its members to find out how they wanted their pensions invested, he responded, “Teachers, bless their soul … are very focused in on teaching and they sadly don’t respond much to our surveys. … I’ve asked about asking this question. It’s so complex that we haven’t got answers and I don’t think we’ve done so today.”
California teachers are, indeed, very focused on teaching. However, many teachers like Park Guthrie have devoted their scant free time to calling for CalSTRS to divest from fossil fuels. At the Symposium, Guthrie quickly pointed out that unions and associations representing about 150,000 CalSTRS members have passed resolutions calling for CalSTRS to divest. “I don’t know of any unions that have passed pro-engagement-only resolutions,” he added.
Unions aren’t the only actors demanding that CalSTRS stop financing fossil fuels. Eight years ago, a group of teachers founded Fossil Free California, a nonprofit organization devoted to pressuring CalSTRS and CalPERS to protect their retirement savings from the financial volatility and real-world impacts of fossil fuel investments. In the interim years, countless students, teachers, and frontline community members, many of whom have suffered from the industry’s pollution or California wildfires, have attended CalSTRS board meetings to beg silent board members to divest from the very companies powering climate change. Students with Youth vs. Apocalypse continue to organize rallies protesting CalSTRS’ environmentally racist fossil fuel investments. Nearly 80,000 individuals have signed petitions calling for the financial giant to divest. Most recently, CalSTRS members have even introduced a bill to the California legislature that would mandate CalSTRS and CalPERS to divest from fossil fuels.
One solution to CalSTRS not knowing what its member think about engagement and divestment was proposed by another speaker at the event, University of California CIO Jagdeep Singh Bachher, who oversaw the system’s fossil fuel divestment. Bachher said, “That is the engagement I have felt was the most fruitful, is engaging with our students and our staff and our teachers in a way that we could learn from them. … Our success strategy hasn’t been whether we sold oil and gas, but that we listen when our students and our staff show up.”
If CalSTRS’ mission is to serve their members, the first thing they must do is listen. Regardless of their investment strategy, it is crucial that their members can trust them; and ignoring, belittling, and dismissing the genuine concerns of California teachers whose retirement savings are invested in Big Oil is a surefire way to destroy that trust.