By definition, an afterburner is a device in the engine of an airplane designed to increase its power. In the AFT, a group of our retiree volunteers took on the name AFTerburners to increase member engagement and voter education as well as turnout in the 2020 election and, as a result, build on the AFT’s union power.
AFT’s member volunteers, especially our retirees, are the lifeblood of the union’s organizing and get-out-the-vote effort, but the coronavirus pandemic made the more traditional forms of grassroots outreach impossible. So, the union found new and creative ways to engage members. The AFTerburners is one of the most successful programs, addressing the challenge while raising awareness of the AFT Retirees program in the process. When the election season ended, the retiree group had completed 291 phone bank shifts for a total of 445 hours and 16,112 calls.
Most of the world moved to the internet for activities that could not be done in person because of the shutdowns and closures caused by the pandemic. The technology required for online interaction can be challenging, especially for older adults. Even though some AFT retirees who joined the group were hesitant about learning the ins and outs of platforms like Zoom, the AFT Labor Action Network, and the texting app Hustle, the AFTerburners embraced the opportunity to connect with others.
Rob Bower, who joined AFTerburners in August, wasn’t into social media and had never phone-banked. “I was reluctant at first, but it dawned on me how important it was. I knew this was the most important election of my lifetime,” says Bower, former president of the Professional Staff Association at Rhode Island College. “It sounded intimidating at first, but once we got into it, I was OK.”
The training provided by the AFT helped to ease the anxiety, says Bower who retired in 2014. By the time the election season ended, Bower estimates he made hundreds of connections with AFT members. “We have to cast a wide net, but it’s worth it because you make the connection,” he says, adding that he was able to strike up friendships with other members of the AFTerburners. “It’s a team effort, and there were so many people involved, it didn’t take a lot of time. And in the end, I felt like we accomplished something.”
Bill Philipps, president of the Santa Cruz (Calif.) Federation of Retired Educational Personnel, says it has been a struggle to keep the chapter together with the pandemic. The AFTerburner program offered Philipps and his members a chance to connect and to talk about the issues that concerned them the most. “I don’t do partisan politics, but I was attracted to this because we were calling about the issues,” Philipps said of the AFTerburners program. “We called all over the country to places like Georgia and North Carolina, and we got a good response because we talked to like-minded members about healthcare, pensions and Social Security.”
Philipps enjoyed the flexibility that the program offered. “The time put in was just right,” he says. Pre-pandemic, he and his members would have driven to nearby states, like Nevada, to help with outreach. Now, they are joining car caravans and honking for Medicare for All and the like, he says. “I miss meeting in person, but it was good that we stayed at home this time.”
Katherine Lewis, a retired speech pathologist in New York City, enjoyed working with the AFTerburners because it gave her the chance to stay home during the pandemic. Before retiring in 2019, Lewis was an active member of her union, the United Federation of Teachers. “Normally I would do outreach through our phone banks; but since the offices are closed, this was an alternative to work as a retiree with the AFT,” she says, adding “I thought it was great to use the technology after the training and having staff to help if we had any questions or difficulties.
“It was a positive experience that gave me the chance to speak with AFT members from different parts of the country as well as the opportunity to find out about other platforms that connect you,” says Lewis. “Many members were happy to hear from me. I was able to refer them if they needed help and let them know how to get involved too.”
Trish Lorange, a retired English teacher, has always enjoyed being active in her union, the State Vocational Federation of Teachers/AFT Connecticut, and is secretary of the SVFT’s retiree chapter. Knowing that the pandemic would put a damper on the union’s election work, Lorange found the mission of AFTerburners “incredibly appealing” and signed up.
At the beginning of the effort in May, Lorange worked a few hours a month on one of her first assignments: making calls to support passage of the federal legislation known as the Heroes Act in the Senate. By November, she was working several hours a week. “I made hundreds of calls to AFT members. It was heartening to hear people with the same views, or from people happy to hear from the union.”
For Lorange, the biggest benefit to the program was feeling useful and actively serving a need even though she was at home. “It’s been joyful work,” says Lorange, who is one of several AFTerburner members hoping they can meet in person when the pandemic is over.
Lorange was also inspired with a plan to use the texting app Hustle to connect with members of her retiree chapter to increase its membership and activism. “The AFTerburners enlarged my vision of what we could do from home as retirees.”