WASHINGTON — Retired garment worker Elli Kuhns of Shamokin, Pa., knows hard times, recalls when women could not vote, remembers Franklin Delano Roosevelt, savors the stunning defeat of Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Rick Santorum in 2006 and, sitting amid a sea of recently retired baby boomers, has her walking shoes on for 2008.
Kuhns joined over 600 delegates from 22 states here at a legislative conference of the Alliance of Retired Americans, Sept. 4-7. The delegates, representing unions from both the AFL-CIO and Change to Win federation, gathered at the Hilton hotel to map plans for next year’s presidential and congressional showdown.
“Getting rid of Santorum was a three-pair-of-shoe campaign plus an extra bottle of aspirin for the arthritis in my fingers from calling,” said Kuhns. “There’s been a lot of shoe sales this summer in our neck of the woods. Stocked up. I’ve been at this for a time and don’t depend on someone else to talk to people or the TV. This time we are going to finish the job.”
Marquis Sanchez, a longtime worker at the Hilton, said, “For a crowd of retirees, this group is loud, gets to the hall early, reads the meeting papers and makes me proud to be a union member.
“I’d hate to be a Republican or a dancing Democrat,” Sanchez continued. “These people mean it.”
“An angry senior is something to behold,” said George Kourpias, ARA president and former head of the Machinists Union, in welcoming the delegates. When the smoke cleared in 2006, he said, “we built a powerful, progressive, grassroots army of retirees who pulled out seniors to vote in record numbers” based on the bedrock issues of saving Social Security from privatization and defending Medicare.
“The underlying idea of the Bush administration’s ‘ownership society’ is, ‘You’re on your own, the yo-yo society,’” Kourpias continued, drawing laughter. With the Iraq war costing $220 million a day, the federal government cannot rebuild the Social Security trust fund or provide universal health care, he said, linking the domestic shortfalls to Bush’s failed military adventure.
Kourpias warned of storm clouds ahead, noting only 12 percent of seniors polled by the ARA say they believe their children will enjoy a better life than they do.
Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Hillary Clinton and Rep. Dennis Kucinich addressed the conference, as did Elizabeth Edwards, who brought her husband’s campaign to the packed house.
Retired union members are not a sitting, listening-to-speeches type of crowd. On Sept. 6, after a rousing send-off by AFL-CIO Secretary Treasurer Rich Trumka, they loaded up buses and spent a half day lobbying on Capitol Hill, armed with the facts.
With appointments with their respective representatives and senators, teams of union members sat down with the lawmakers to convince them to preserve Social Security, to fully fund Medicare, and to reform the Medicare prescription drug program called Medicare Part D, including permitting the Medicare program to negotiate the cost of medicines with the big drug companies, as the Veterans Administration currently does.
Already, senior pressure has forced the administration to once again allow organized bus trips to Canada by U.S. residents to take advantage of the cheaper cost of prescription medications there.
The delegate-lobbyists reported back to the ARA conference, indicating most Democratic legislators support their agenda.
Retired UAW member Gene Lantz from Dallas summed up the reaction from Republican lawmakers, saying, “We met with Sen. John Cornyn. He danced around, not supporting any of our issues. But I am proud to report that not a single Texan in our group got up and slapped him.”Cornyn is a hardcore supporter of the Bush administration.
Several breakout sessions at the conference focused on the tactics of winning a national single-payer health care plan. The ARA has endorsed HR 676, the United States National Health Insurance Act, a single-payer plan introduced by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.).
The 3-million-member ARA has been an outspoken advocate for unity between seniors and children in the face of Republican efforts to pit them against each other, particularly on health care issues.
For more information about the ARA’s activities and its fact-based resources, visit .
firstname.lastname@example.org Bob Rossi contributed to this story.