This report about the California state teachers retirement pension fund bringing a shareholders’ suit against Wal-Mart for the damage its executives did to Wal-Mart shareholders’ interests by allegedly bribing Mexican public officials reminds me of a story I’ve been expecting to see for a while. Unions, particularly teachers’ unions, are a bastion of the political left, and Wal-Mart is, of course, well known for its support of conservative causes, especially anti-union labor laws. Yet, according to news reports, this teachers’ union pension fund owns about $300 million in Wal-Mart stock.
Similarly, a flood of television advertising from Big Oil’s American Petroleum Institute has been reminding us lately that it’s the little guy - through pension funds and mutual funds - who actually owns Big Oil. As the organization’s website explains: “Contrary to popular belief, America’s oil and natural gas companies aren’t owned by a small group of insiders. Only 2.8 percent of industry shares are owned by corporate management. The rest is owned by regular Americans, many of them middle class, such as teachers, police officers and firefighters.”
Beyond being a reminder of how out of whack corporate governance is, given that those 2.8 percent in “corporate management” seem to be calling the shots, juxtapose this irony or conflict or whatever else you want to call it with the fire hose of corporate money now going into lobbying, political advocacy and super PACs favored by that 2.8 percent. A slew of intriguing questions become obvious: The California teachers clearly don’t, but do any union pension funds have rules against holding stock in companies whose political positions are glaringly adverse to those of their members? Have any union funds that are invested in companies like Wal-Mart or Big Oil tried to use shareholder votes or investor meetings to get the managers who supposedly work for them to toe a different line?
How aware are union workers that the value of their pensions may depend on the success of entities, like Big Oil or Wal-Mart, they do not typically consider to be their friends?
Conversely, does awareness of their stake in corporate America’s biggest players, to the extent they are aware, moderate any of the workers’ political views, or give a persuasive talking point to politicians who want to take the side of big business - which is something that the Petroleum Institute’s ads are clearly attempting?