Is Labor’s Future in Labor’s Capital? A Debate, Part III

This is Part III of a conversation between David H. Webber and Michael McCarthy on the prospect of combating neoliberal corporate governance through the shareholder activities of workers’ pension funds. Workers’ retirement savings make up a substantial share of the capital invested in the public stock market and the private equity market. If shareholder primacy is the dominant paradigm of our financialized economy–-usually a problematic proposition in these pages–-then shouldn’t workers have a say in how these companies are run? Webber and McCarthy are both sympathetic to this idea, but disagree about how well such efforts have worked in the past and how likely they are to work in the future.

You can view the other parts of the debate here.

LPE: We now have several potential obstacles on the table. Let’s take a closer look at some of them. First, the legal obstacle—what does fiduciary law really require, and is this a problem for prioritizing something other than short term financial return in fund governance? Second, politics—what will it take for labor to demand a seat at the table, or a majority of the seats?

David H. Webber: Though I do not view current fiduciary law as an insurmountable barrier to the activism I describe, it could be better. ERISA comes from trust law, though the statute explicitly states one should be cautious in using trust law to interpret it. I have argued that, in many respects, the more flexible fiduciary duties found in trust law’s cousin, corporate law, may be a better fit for pension plans as they exist today than trust law itself. Historically, because shareholders were thought to be comparatively more empowered vis-à-vis corporate boards and managers than beneficiaries were vis-à-vis trustees, more flexible fiduciary duties evolved in the corporate sector.

But I think that in the case of many pension plans, these distinctions have broken down. First, public pension plans now make regular disclosures through Certified Annual Financial Reports, the pension law equivalent of the 10-K. Second, plan participants and beneficiaries get to vote for worker and retiree representatives on boards, and in their capacity as citizens, they also get to vote for the elected officials who serve as employer representatives on those boards. So there is a measure of accountability not found in traditional trusts. Third, on the corporate side, diversified shareholders have effectively lost their capacity to exit. Divesting is expensive, can often hurt you on the way out, and may undermine diversification. Many shareholders are locked in the same way pension beneficiaries are. It may be time for greater convergence between pension law and corporate law, one that takes account of the new institutional realities.

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Is Labor’s Future in Labor’s Capital? A Debate: Part II

This is Part II of a conversation between David H. Webber and Michael McCarthy on the prospect of combating neoliberal corporate governance through the shareholder activities of workers’ pension funds. Workers’ retirement savings make up a substantial share of the capital invested in the public stock market and the private equity market. If shareholder primacy is the dominant paradigm of our financialized economy–usually a problematic proposition in these pages–then shouldn’t workers have a say in how these companies are run?Webber and McCarthy are both sympathetic to this idea, but disagree about how well such efforts have worked in the past and how likely they are to work in the future.

You can view the other parts of the debate here.

David Webber: Though I think he somewhat overstates the case, I agree with Michael’s observation that these pensions have, at times, been used against labor. And not just historically. I discuss (and decry) contemporary examples of this phenomenon in my book, such as pension fund investment in privatization. And it is also true that both private and public sector pensions have been used in favor of labor, as my book demonstrates. Before digging into those issues, I want to clarify some important distinctions between the public and private fund context, respond to some of Michael’s claims about ERISA and fiduciary duty, and point to examples of why, regardless of what has occurred historically, things are changing and have the potential to change further, if acted upon.

First, Michael shifts the focus to private union pension plans. Fair enough. I discussed them above and I’ll return to them below. But the bulk of my discussion focused on public pension plans, and with good reason. In part that’s because they are far larger. The public pension funds of California alone significantly exceed the assets of all private union pension plans combined. But there’s another reason to focus on public pension plans: they are not governed by Taft-Hartley or by ERISA. They are governed by state pension codes. That matters for two issues: board control, and fiduciary duties.

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Is Labor’s Future in Labor’s Capital? A Debate

This is Part I of a conversation between David H. Webber and Michael McCarthy on the prospect of combating neoliberal corporate governance through the shareholder activities of workers’ pension funds. Workers’ retirement savings make up a substantial share of the capital invested in the public stock market and the private equity market. If shareholder primacy is the dominant paradigm of our financialized economy–usually a problematic proposition in these pages–then shouldn’t workers have a say in how these companies are run? Webber and McCarthy are both sympathetic to this idea, but disagree about how well such efforts have worked in the past and how likely they are to work in the future.

You can view the other parts of the debate here.

LPE: Let’s start with where we are now and how we got here. How did we get to a place where some workers get to decide how their retirement assets should be invested, while others don’t? What were the key fights between labor groups, employers, and financial industry players on this question, and what were the outcomes?

David Webber: Worker shareholder power can be found mostly in public sector pension plans, which are publicly-created retirement plans that invest the retirement savings of public-sector workers. These large state, city, and county employee retirement plans hold at least $4 trillion in assets, roughly 10% of the U.S. stock market, and at least a third of “alternative investment vehicles” like private equity. The most famous examples are the California Public Employees’ Retirement System ($350 billion in assets), the California State Teachers Retirement System ($223.8 billion), the New York City Pension Funds ($195 billion), and the New York Common Retirement Funds ($207.4. billion), among many others. Almost all public pension plans have worker representatives on the boards of trustees, the equivalent of worker representation on corporate boards. These workers are elected by other workers (or retirees) who participate in the funds. Sometimes those worker slots are controlled or heavily influenced by unions. Sometimes workers outright control the board; more often they constitute a minority of trustees.

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