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Divest Now: City Council Needs to Take Action on Resolution Against Pension Fund Investments in Nuclear Weapons

Divestiture represents a small step toward a nuclear-free world at a time when the trillion-dollar arms race is galloping along

Anthony Donovan Jun 11

A City Council resolution, the cynics tell us, is “just words.” But the words in Resolution 0976-2019—which has languished for more than a year without a vote—very much matter. They point the way to a better and safer world.

The resolution calls upon the city to divest from nuclear weapons manufacturers in public employees’ pension funds. The city’s five pension funds have holdings of about half a billion dollars in 19 companies involved in the nuclear-weapons industry, representing less than .25 of the system’s total assets. The resolution also calls upon the United States to join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which entered into force in January.   

Divestiture represents a small step toward a nuclear-free world at a time when the trillion-dollar arms race is galloping along, largely ignored by the mainstream media. But it’s a vital and important step.

The resolution was introduced in June 2019 by Council Member Daniel Dromm, chairperson of the Finance Committee. “I look forward to the day when the city will not only divest but also engage in proactive efforts to help tackle the existential threat posed by nuclear weapons,” he said at City Hall during the resolution’s public hearing in January 2020. More than 60 people and organizations testified on that day and more submitted testimonials in writing. “New York’s fiduciary responsibility to its employees—current, future and retired—can continue to be met without investing in companies involved in weapons production or maintenance,” Maura Keaney, first vice president of Amalgamated Bank, told the Council. The resolution has majority support among Council Members. 

The city’s five pension funds have holdings of about half a billion dollars in 19 companies involved in the nuclear-weapons industry

But City Council has taken no further action. It appears two and half years of effort have been cast onto the political scrap heap. Time is running short. If the resolution is not passed within a month, it will have to be reintroduced into the next City Council with its new membership.

Why hasn’t a vote been called? The blame lies ultimately with City Council Speaker Corey Johnson. “I do support it 100 percent,” he said on WNYC in February of the resolution. “I think one of the issues is … it becomes a little strange when the New York City Council is weighing in on international issues. … Does this set a precedent for us to keep moving on resolutions that are outside the jurisdiction of a local legislative body?”

Let us set aside the question of whether the annihilation of human life on earth is a local or international issue. The city of New York has a long and proud history of “weighing in on international issues.” The city’s legislative body has introduced and passed dozens of resolutions over the decades on the grave dangers and waste of needed resources of the nuclear arms race. The history books tell us that divesting from companies doing business in South Africa—as the New York City Employees’ Retirement System did in 1984—was an essential element in the fall of the apartheid regime.

Council Member Dromm, who is not seeking reelection, has an obligation to expend political capital to push for a vote. He asked hundreds of citizens to labor in support of the resolution, which he described as dear to him. Now is the time for him to be held accountable for his sincere declarations. 

Corey Johnson, who wants city residents to entrust him with the position of city comptroller, should act in honor of one of his heroes, Bayard Rustin, the civil rights giant, pioneer of LGBT activism, and longtime New Yorker. 

Rustin was a leading opponent of nuclear weapons from the 1940s, arrested in City Hall Park with Dorothy Day and others in 1955 for opposing what he described as the insanity and false security of entering shelter during a nuclear attack drill. Mr. Rustin’s partner, Walter Naegle, testified (in writing) in support of this resolution. “Were he with us today,” Mr. Naegle wrote, “I know he would be urging the City Council to move forward on these initiatives.” 

It’s extremely rare that one has an opportunity to save a life, never mind help save all human life. The City Council should pass this resolution now and do its small part for the future of humanity. 

Anthony Donovan is a hospice nurse. He lives in the East Village. 

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