Inside the AFL-CIO
Issued Every Tuesday
Column #14 June 19, 2001

Why Limit Alliance Retirees
To Lobbying on ‘Senior Issues?’

By Harry Kelber

The Alliance for Retired Americans, the new senior advocacy group launched by the AFL-CIO on May 23, starts out with 2.5 million union retirees on its membership rolls. Its first activity will be to lobby Congress so that all Medicare recipients can get affordable prescription drugs.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney calls the Alliance “the largest retiree-only advocacy organization in our country, and we believe its size and national scope make it an instant political force to be reckoned with.” When union members retire, they will automatically become members of the Alliance. Their dues will be paid by their unions. Membership will grow to five million by 2006, Sweeney predicts.

The new retiree group, a successor to the National Council of Senior Citizens, is expected to take stands on other issues affecting older Americans, including Social Security, patients’ rights, utility rates and health care.

AFL-CIO unions are expected to provide financial resources and staff assistance to help the Alliance mobilize and activate its huge membership, but until the details are worked out, it won’t be easy to reach all members — especially without an elaborate communications network in place.

But why limit the Alliance to lobbying on issues affecting the elderly? A great many retired union members are physically healthy, mentally alert and committed to the goals of the labor movement. And many unions desperately need volunteer organizers so they can target more unorganized workplaces, win more campaigns and start growing again. There are tens of thousands of former labor activists with great organizing credentials who would gladly lend a hand and give a lift to their own locals and other unions in the communities they know best. Make them feel wanted and welcome, and they’ll flock to the cause.

Besides retired union members, there are thousands of retired union staffers — writers, educators, researchers, economists, administrators, legislative and political specialists — who could be induced to devote some of their “leisure time” to bolstering and building labor’s influence.

By restricting the Alliance’s role to that of a lobby on issues that most directly affect the elderly, the AFL-CIO could end up promoting the same kind of age discrimination that is so pervasive in our society — and should have no place in the labor movement. Some union leaders may not want retirees (especially smart, experienced ones) hanging around and poking into union affairs, but those leaders probably have the same shortsighted attitude toward their own members.

The Alliance for Retired Americans could help retired members become more active in the labor movement by setting up a registry of volunteers with special skills, which individual unions could draw upon under a mutually agreeable arrangement. Thus, the wealth of experience that labor has accumulated over decades would be made available to present and future generations.

If we’re looking for a win-win solution, this is it.

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