Retirees learn to become an organizing force 

More than 100 retired activists eager to learn more about organizing and mobilizing their fellow retirees gathered in Orlando, Fla., on April 17-20 for the first organizing conference hosted by the AFT Retirees Program. The participants were from each AFT constituency and hailed from 19 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. They came from retiree chapters big and small, but all had the same goal: to discover techniques to help them build their retiree power.

Retirees at 2023 conference

The gathering began with an enthusiastic video greeting from AFT President Randi Weingarten. “As retirees, you are our daytime army, the backbone on which the union stands strong. That’s why this conference is so important,” she said. “What does any good army do, alongside fighting for what it believes in? It trains, and it recruits!” Now, more than ever, she added, the union needs dynamic, growing retiree locals—with reflexive organizing muscle—that are ready to mobilize.

The four-day conference focused on fundamental organizing principles like one-on-one conversations and building effective committees. It also addressed retiree specific challenges like overcoming apathy and telling personal stories as part of a campaign. Participants had the option of attending breakout sessions featuring interactive workshops on data gathering, community engagement, messaging, comprehensive strategic planning, and other organizing principles. Finally, participants spent the week collaborating with their peers from other states and locals to role play, working as a committee to develop a goal statement and strategic organizing plan for a newly formed retiree chapter.

Lorraine Ferranini and Aladji Sow, both newly retired United Federation of Teachers members, are part of the AFT's AFTerburner program, which was designed to boost member participation and voter education. Nonetheless, both retirees wanted to know more about organizing. That’s why they traveled to Florida. Ferranini went to learn how to be a better organizer. "I just want people to love the union and get more involved," she said. Sow attended the seminar to learn more about union building. "We already have the structure, but we need to strengthen it, especially for members who are about to retire. We need to be able to engage them early on so that we can bring them in."

‘You’re a part of our success'

Darrin Nedrow, AFT senior director of organizing, stressed the importance of retirees in the union during a panel discussion on state-level recruiting. “When it comes to organizing at the AFT, it doesn't happen by accident, it doesn't happen by will, it doesn't happen by just effort alone. We are very disciplined about this model,” said Nedrow, underscoring the key role of retirees in the organizing plan. “You're a part of our organizing success.”

“There is a role for each of us, no matter what our background, what we have, what assets we have,” said Tom Murphy, chair of the AFT Retirees program and policy council. “We all, as individuals, have assets to join with one another. And that's what this is all about.”

“I have so much love for the AFT retirees who built this union,” said AFT Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus. “I see the history and knowledge that comes from decades of union experience coming together for one common goal like building retirement power, protecting our Social Security and Medicare, and strengthening our pensions,” she said. “When each of you leaves here, you will be an organizing force!”

Alan Lubin, emeritus executive vice president of New York State United Teachers, reminded the retirees that their work was not done and that they could develop a retiree chapter by working together, regardless of how large or small the membership, by recognizing that the key to building retiree power is working with their locals and encouraging new retirees to get active in the chapters. “The way to do that is to talk to people. It's not the slick letter from the chapter leader, it's a tap on the shoulder. That's what works.”

“Retirees can be galvanized around one topic,” added DeJesus. “Once you win—even if it's a small win—it brings camaraderie, it brings trust, and it brings hope.”

‘We came with a mission’

On the conference's final day, retirees heard from AFT Secretary-Treasurer, Fedrick Ingram. He began by asking the retirees to recollect who was president of the United States when they first started teaching. Ingram then highlighted the highs and lows of education in each era. “I just wanted to give you that nostalgic moment to remind you of what you've done ... of what must be done. Fifty million children are relying on us to get this right every day in our public schools.”

By the end of the meeting, the retirees came away with plans—big and small—to successfully run an organizing campaign and achieve goals, such as increasing retiree chapter membership and partnering with diverse organizations.

“We came with a mission,” said AFT Washington’s Jim Howe. The retirees wanted to be able to draft a resolution to expand and empower retiree chapters in Washington state. Howe says he and fellow retirees were inspired by the work of other retirees and will use what they learned to reach out to retirees throughout the state to revitalize the chapter.

Mary Anne Ahtye, a United Educators of San Francisco retiree, wanted to develop ways to reach out to retirees who don't have email. "The challenge is communication." She intends to use tools like Hustle and the Labor Action Network she learned about at the conference to reach potential members. They will also work on a strategy plan. She also discovered what other retiree chapters are doing. “I think we have got some really good ideas. I found this conference very informative, and it has activated me. We need to start small and then expand. We’ve got a lot of things that we can do but need to work on our structure first.”

“The union builders in this room have learned to energize and motivate and activate themselves, and we will pass that legacy on and on,” said NYSUT retiree leader Loretta Donlon.

[Adrienne Coles]