TIAA-CREF (TC), the nation’s largest pension system, proclaims itself a leader in corporate/social responsibility, as well as in customer satisfaction. Although its tagline is “financial services for the greater good,” TC invests in some of the worst corporate actors: Coca-Cola, Nike, Wal-Mart, Reynolds American, and Costco (in Mexico). The pension fund’s socially irresponsible investing has caught the eye of some of its own investors. The 1.4 million-strong American Federation of Teachers passed a resolution critical of TC’s investment in the first three of these companies and demanded that it hold these companies accountable on labor issues. After years of shareholder lobbying, TC finally agreed to talk to some of these companies. Unfortunately, TC’s “quiet diplomacy” over years has led to nothing substantive with the companies. Its Policy Statement on Corporate Governance states, “While quiet diplomacy remains our core strategy… TIAA-CREF’s engagement program involves many different activities and initiatives, including… engaging in public dialogue and commentary… engaging in collective action with other investors… seeking regulatory or legislative relief… commencing or supporting litigation.” TC’s press releases state that “engagement is a multi-step process…TIAA-CREF believes that we should explore the ways in which to influence the companies’ behavior and thereby help bring about positive social change” and that they “sometimes threaten tougher actions.” Notably, a January 24, 2009 New York Times article asserted that changes in Wal-Mart’s environmental practices were prompted by the aggressive work of activists. Recently, under pressure from Investors Against Genocide and a looming resolution on its July 20 meeting ballot, TC changed a long-standing policy and agreed to divest from its portfolio companies in Sudan unless they took meaningful steps to respect human rights. But TC has not extended that get tough policy to other important human rights abuses seen in sweatshops, and murders of union activists. Activists from a group called “Make TIAA-CREF Ethical Coalition” are asking TC to mount pressure to reform these five companies on the concerns below-which go beyond just human rights — or divest from them. Specifically with regard to Wal-Mart, the Make TIAA-CREF Ethical Coalition has insited that Wal-Mart continues to exploit its workforce, build its profits on sweatshop labor, and damage local communities by constructing huge stores — then abandoning hundreds of them. “To the extent that TIAA-CREF is one of the largest institutional investors in Wal-Mart stock, they are complicit in the socially irresponsible behavior of the world’s largest retailer,” said Al Norman, founder of Sprawl-Busters. “CREF has lost touch with its higher education investors by continuing to invest heavily in Wal-Mart.” The group has also taken aim at Costco: As recognized by the High Commission on Human Rights and Amnesty International, Costco violently repressed activists and illegally destroyed important natural areas as well as 3,000-year-old archeological sites in Cuernavaca, Mexico. “By divesting from Costco, TC would send a message that extends beyond Mexico, to others committing such crimes,” says Prof. Jaime Lagunez of the Citizens’ Coalition.
TIAA-CREF holds its Annual meeting on Monday, July 20th. Activists are urged to remind the pension fund that it has done little or nothing to change the socially irresponsible behavior of Wal-Mart. TC has what it calls a ‘socially responsible’ investment portfolio for investors who cannot stomach putting their money into companies like Wal-Mart. But this ‘socially responsible’ portfolio is only a very small piece of TC’s total pension investments. At least 90% or more of TC’s investments are outside of the ‘socially responsible’ stocks, and are therefore by exclusion, socially irresponsible. Go to: http://www.tiaa-cref.org/about/contact/index.html?tc_lnk=toputlity and leave this email message for TIAA-CREF: “I am writing to say how appalling it is that TIAA-CREF continues to invest heavily in Wal-Mart stock, despite the company’s deteriorating human rights record here and around the globe. Wal-Mart continues to build its wealth by exploiting workers in third world countries, where thousands of unlisted factories produce sweatshop products that TC investments help bring to market. Here in America, Wal-Mart continues to reap great profits while its workforce is underpaid, provided with unafforable and inadequate health insurance, with no pension opportunities. The company violates labor rights laws by inhibiting and threatening its workers from organizing into unions. Wal-Mart is consuming vast amounts of land for its new stores, often shutting down its ‘old’ stores, creating ‘ghost boxes’ along the roadside. By investing in this stock, TC is complicit in all these irresponsible actions. TC has had years to engage Wal-Mart, with little or no tangible results. It’s time now for TC to set measurable goals for Wal-Mart to clean up its sweatshop vendors, comply with labor rights laws, protect the environment, and end wasteful abandonment of stores. If these benchmarks are not set and met, TC should divst its holdings in Wal-Mart, and put such funds in more socially responsible companies.”