Engaged and mobilized retirees are a major resource for the union

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Retiree activism is one of the labor movement’s greatest resources, AFT chief of staff Mark Richard told the opening session of the AFT’s Retiree Leaders Conference on Nov. 20 in Washington, D.C. 

Richard urged conference participants to use their passion for activism to help the union move its agenda—and to somehow pass that passion on to younger members. One way of connecting with younger, newer members, Richard suggested, is through technology. “We have to find a way to use our passion and skill set in a way that resonates with a technology-driven society.”  

Wellyn Collins, a member of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers retiree chapter, agreed. When it came to technology, “our younger members told us we needed to change, and once we accepted that and began to incorporate everyone’s ideas, the power of technology worked for us.”

“We incorporate all of the things we’ve done in the past as well as new technology,” added Jim Carr, a retiree member of the New York State Public Employees Federation. “We hold rallies, we use Facebook, we write letters to the editor. We have to embrace what works.”

Embracing technology often requires an “attitude adjustment,” said Roger Boudreau of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers retiree chapter. “There has to be an acceptance about the nature and speed of change that technology brings.”

The use and acceptance of technology doesn’t mean everything changes, Richard noted. “Our core values will remain the same—and they are what unite us. Even if the modalities and solutions we use are different, the principles of our organization will never change.”

During a session later in the day, Sam Luebke, an AFT deputy director of organizing and field services, reiterated the need for retirees to continue supporting and working with the union, urging conference participants to focus on building connections with both active members and the community.

It’s also important, Luebke said, to build strong retiree chapters, which means ongoing organizing. “One-on-one contact moves people to join a movement.” That includes connecting with the community as well as retired members, he said. “If you can get teachers and parents saying the same thing, it’s an alliance that can’t be broken. Retirees can play a direct role in meeting that goal.”

The conference gave AFT retiree leaders a chance to also talk about how to engage members so that they will be more active in the chapters. The ABC Federation of Teachers retiree chapter organized around several ballot initiatives in California’s 2012 elections, Laura Rico, president of ABC’s retiree chapter said. By doing so, “we found something tangible to share with members,” Rico said. “The members could see how their actions made a difference.”

Rico is already looking ahead to the 2014 elections. “If we can change the U.S. House of Representatives in 2014, then we change a lot. I want to win and I know we know how to win, and it starts with the retiree chapters.”

The two-day retiree leaders conference also focused on pensions, social media, voter protection, community engagement, and organizing around legislative and political issues. [Adrienne Coles]

Nov. 26, 2013