The American Federation of Teachers is determined to see that its 1.5 million members retire with their pension security intact. As AFT president, Randi Weingarten has become the most public face in the battle for defined benefit pension funds. The daughter of a high school teacher, Weingarten grew up in Rockland County, New York, and earned a BS in labor relations from Cornell University and a JD from Yeshiva University. She began her career as an attorney at law firm Stroock & Stroock & Lavan and was elected AFT president in 2008 after 12 years as head of New York AFT affiliate the United Federation of Teachers. Weingarten, 55, regards the push away from defined benefit pensions toward defined contribution plans as especially dangerous because it puts the risk of investing on individual teachers. "How many of us as individual investors actually really know with some degree of efficacy what to invest in?" she asks. Also, defined contribution funds aren't necessarily more cost-efficient, Weingarten asserts; West Virginia learned that when it switched to such a system in 1990 only to move back to a defined benefit model in 2008. In April the AFT published a report criticizing money managers who work for defined benefit funds but also support right-wing groups that advocate dismantling the system. Weingarten has called for teachers' pension trustees to divest from those managers' firms: "You can't have it both ways," she says. As pragmatic as she is pugnacious, the AFT president backed a recent unsuccessful Illinois public pension reform plan that would have saved $58 billion over 30 years. Weingarten and the union also are keen to show that defined benefit pensions can enrich local economies: They've launched programs to encourage investment initiatives that have deployed billions of dollars.
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