This year’s virtual format for the AFT Retirees conference—due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic— provided an opportunity for more than 500 retired AFT members and guests to gather online July 23 to focus on activism and organizing. The meeting also amplified the AFT Retirees program’s message that activists never retire, and it’s never too late to become an activist or ally.
AFT President Randi Weingarten began her keynote address by pointing to the three current crises in our country: the pandemic, an economic recession brought on by the pandemic, and a reckoning with racism—all made worse because of Donald Trump.
“We need to have conversations with family and friends about what’s going on,” said Weingarten. “We need to make sure that every retiree understands the enormity of the upcoming election and its consequences if Joe Biden is not elected,” she said, adding that the election is not just about defeating Trump. “It’s also about reimagining America. We need to rewrite rules so they are fair for everyone,” she said, adding that healthcare should be a right not a privilege, public education should be equitable for all, and that unions mean people have a pathway to dignity.
The union has a big agenda, said Weingarten. “We need you to help us to get this done. We need your leadership, mentorship and partnership. You have our backs, and we have your backs—that’s what a union is.”
During the session, the retirees took a moment to honor the memories of Texas AFT Retiree Plus leader, activist and ally Cheryl Anderson, and civil rights movement pioneers Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and the Rev. C.T. Vivian. The retirees were then joined by U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas). She praised the work of AFT’s retirees and encouraged them to continue their activism. “Activism is a must in this country. You’ve got to fight, and you’ve got to get into good trouble,” she said.
The conference included two panels. The first featured Christine Rowland, a member of the United Federation of Teachers Retired Teachers Chapter, who shared how the UFT’s Florida chapter leaders used the AFL-CIO’s Labor Action Network to reach out to the more than 8,000 retired UFT members in the state. “After 2016, we knew that they had to do things differently to be effective,” said Rowland, “because many of our members had not voted in their best interest.”
The Florida chapter created a Facebook group and a newsletter to boost outreach to their members. When the pandemic hit, the chapter leaders began contacting members to make sure they were OK. “We simply wanted to know how they were doing and if they needed any help. We were happy to see that the vast majority of members we talked to were OK. And for those who needed help, we linked them to welfare services and membership programs.”
By the end of the outreach campaign, the leaders made 11,000 calls and had more than 3,000 conversations with retirees. “People appreciated the concern from the union,” said Rowland. The leaders now have transitioned to making political calls with a focus on voting by mail.
Rita Runnels, a member of Texas AFT Retiree Plus, led the second panel, which focused on the efforts of Texas retiree members to address the cost of healthcare and ways to improve the teacher pension system. Runnels shared how many of the retirees were determined to get active on the issue. “Our first action was to stand out in front of the TRS (Texas Teacher Retirement System) building and have a press conference to raise awareness of our lack of a cost-of-living increase,” she said.
Runnels, testified before the Texas Legislature in 2018, asking lawmakers to better fund their pension system and allow a cost-of-living increase. Runnels’ husband, Charles, died from throat cancer in March, but she says they had to raise money to pay for his chemotherapy because the out-of-pocket costs were too much. Her testimony helped sway lawmakers to call on the state to not raise healthcare premiums. Thanks to the retirees’ lobbying, the lawmakers also voted to provide retirees with an extra annuity payment that year. “Today, the Texas AFT Retirees Plus is 285 members strong. We are still organizing during the pandemic and held a virtual summit in June,” said Runnels. “Although we are locked up in our homes, it doesn’t mean we can’t effect change. We have retiree power in Texas.”
The meeting also included a discussion about a resolution to elevate the AFT Retirees Committee to an AFT Retirees Policy and Program Council. That resolution will be voted on during the AFT convention. In addition, the AFT Retirees Legacy Project was unveiled. The project encourages retirees to share their experiences, and listen to others’ experiences in an effort to pass down their lessons, hopes and struggles for the generations of AFT members and unionists to come.