Glenn Spencer Glenn Spencer
Senior Vice President, Employment Policy Division, U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Published

May 30, 2024

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On May 29, Rep. Virginia Foxx, Chairwoman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, sent a letter to three different unions asking them about “shareholder activism activities that involve assets held by union pension plans.” The letters were sent to the AFL-CIO, the SEIU, and the Teamsters, but did not mention specific pension plans in which their members participate.

Unions regularly put forth shareholder proposals and provide support for particular issues when companies hold their annual shareholder meetings. Rep. Foxx poses a number of questions to these unions about how frequently they engage in this activity, what levels of support their proposals receive, and how much it all costs. Most notably, she seeks to uncover whether this shareholder activism imposes improper costs on union pension funds under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA). ERISA places tight limits on the use of pension assets to promote objectives unrelated to the payment of benefits or plan expenses.

Aside from whether union shareholder activism is being undertaken in compliance with ERISA, it’s worth noting that unions have motives other than just promoting corporate governance when they engage in proxy fights. For example, earlier this year, the SEIU threatened to run three candidates for Board of Director positions at Starbucks (a process the Securities and Exchange Commission has made far easier). Coincidentally, the SEIU is leading an organizing drive against the company under the banner of Starbucks Workers United.

When Starbucks announced a joint agreement with the union to resume contract negotiations, the SEIU announced it was dropping its Board of Director candidates. In other words, the whole exercise had nothing to do with the management of the company—it was merely a tool to advance contract talks. This is just one way unions are exploiting avenues outside of the National Labor Relations Act to promote their objectives.

Over the years, unions have put a lot of time, energy, and resources into proxy voting and shareholder activism. Whether they have done so within the bounds of the law remains to be seen.

About the authors

Glenn Spencer

Glenn Spencer

Spencer oversees the Chamber’s work on immigration, retirement security, traditional labor relations, human trafficking, wage hour and worker safety issues, EEOC matters, and state labor and employment law.

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