Posts Tagged 'South Africa'

30 Years Ago Today: Our Pension Funds and The Fight for Divestment

From the Frontlines #2
By Michael Shulman

Thursday, January 9, 1986 was the first day I took office as the elected Vice President for Academic High Schools. Although I was elected in the spring of 1985, the Unity led UFT under the leadership of Albert Shanker refused to allow me to take my rightful place. The election was contested, by the incumbent, and a Committee to Investigate the Election Challenge was formed.

After 6 months (and $15,000 dollars in legal fees) I and the New Action Coalition that supported me agreed to go to a second election that I won decisively.

Back to January 1986. On Monday, January 27th two interesting issues came up at my first Ad Com meeting (the officers of the union). Seated to Sandra Feldman’s immediate left, I stated that I wanted to begin with a statement of principle. I refused to accept the double pension that union officers, district reps and other staff received. At first there was stunned silence. An officer and leading member of Unity (who I won’t name since she passed away many years ago) asked me, “Mike, what’s wrong with union leaders being in the vanguard?” I responded, “Let’s have that discussion after we win additional pension monies for our members who work beyond their work day doing per session.” It’s ironic that many years later the UFT did win the additional pension benefit. Of course, by then I was no longer in office and missed having that discussion.

The second topic occurred between Sandra Feldman and myself that day. Back in 1984, the Teacher Action Caucus, which I was a member of, initiated a postcard campaign to call on our three Teacher Members of the Retirement Board to push for divestment of our pension funds from companies doing business with the apartheid regime of South Africa (reported in the November 2015 leaflet put out by New Action/UFT). UFT President Feldman looked at me and asked, “Michael, what are these postcards about?” As incredulous as the question was I knew she knew what it was about.”

But my response was serious and I put forward what the members were asking for.

That postcard campaign was instructive. Of course the anti-apartheid fight began long before 1984 and much of the trade union movement was already on board in this fight to divest. But that initiative by a small group of UFT’ers none-the-less played a big role in moving our union. A short time after this meeting, the UFT members of the Teachers Retirement system did, in fact, put forth the case for divestment of our pension funds. Although it took two years to come to pass our UFT made its contribution to the anti-apartheid struggle. The rest is history.


The Fight to Divest Pension Funds – in the 80s Apartheid, today Fossil Fuels

(from the New Action leaflet distributed at the November 2015 UFT Delegate Assembly).
For a printable version click: November 2015 Leaflet back

The Fight to Divest Pension Funds
from Corporations Doing Business with The Republic of South Africa

In 1984-85 one of the predecessors to New Action/UFT the Teachers’ Action Caucus, initiated a postcard campaign directed at the UFT to urge our three Teacher Members on the Retirement Board to press for divestment of our pension funds from corporations doing business with the apartheid regime of South Africa. Although neither the union nor the three members alone could call for divestment, both could certainly have a major impact on convincing the Retirement Board to do so.


In January 1986, after six months of Unity Caucus refusing to seat Michael Shulman who had just been elected in May 1985 as V.P. for Academic High Schools, he took his seat. This only happened after Shulman and New Action agreed to a second election, which New Action won overwhelmingly. At Shulman’s first Ad Com meeting, President Sandra Feldman was confused by what divestment was. She asked Michael, “What are these postcards about?” It was some time later that the UFT came on board with the anti apartheid, divestment movement.

The study to divest pension funds took another two years, after which the UFT joined the rest of the labor movement.

The Fight to Divest Pension Funds from Fossil Fuel Companies and
other entities that Contribute to Climate Change

On this month’s Delegate Assembly agenda we have a resolution that calls for the teacher members of the Teachers’ Retirement Board to request a study to review strategies to divest from fossil fuel companies without putting members pensions or investments at risk. This is a responsible approach.

However, such a study should not be extended for an undue period of time. Certainly, we do not want to repeat the experience from the 1980s, when it took two years to study whether or not we could divest from South Africa – it was the right thing to do, and we were able to divest responsibly. In 2015, a few months should suffice. Climate change needs to be addressed today.

Content Policy

Content of signed articles and comments represents the opinions of their authors. The views expressed in signed articles are not necessarily the views of New Action/UFT.
February 2023