LAS VEGAS - More than 500 retiree activists from across the country gathered in Las Vegas last month to discuss issues of social and economic justice at the annual membership convention of the Alliance for Retired Americans (ARA). The ARA has over 4.3 million members including retired union members and other retirees.
Themed "Building Retiree Power," the convention focused on wealth and income inequality and preserving Americans' right to a secure retirement. Attendees connected with other activists, heard from leaders in the labor movement and elected officials, attended action-focused workshops, and adopted resolutions on issues important to current and future retirees.
Secretary-Treasurer Ruben Burks focused on the widening income gap in America and reminded attendees about the critical role the labor movement played in expanding retirement security. "If it were not for the labor movement, there would be no Social Security or Medicare," said Burks. "It was only through our collective bargaining rights and our political strength that we were able to make these things happen."
American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) President Lee Saunders called attention to continuing attacks on worker pensions and called for a fight to expand pension coverage to more Americans. "Together we must continue to stand up for the idea that after a lifetime of working hard and playing by the rules, we all deserve to live out our years with the dignity and respect that comes from financial independence." He said, "The question is not, 'Why do you still have pensions?' but 'Why don't all workers have pensions?'"
Retired activists discussed how to stop efforts to cut Medicare and Social Security, raise the minimum wage, and fight back against destructive trade deals like the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Of keen interest was information involving the secretive American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a shadowy organization that connects corporations with state lawmakers to quietly push an anti-worker agenda at the state and local level. ALEC brings together corporations and their lobbyists and legislators to vote as equals on "model bills" that protect profits at the expense of retirees and workers. Legislators who are wined and dined with corporate money introduce identical model bills in their state legislatures and too often are successful at passing legislation that harms working families and retirees.
Delegates adopted resolutions to improve and expand Social Security benefits; for Wall Street to pay its fair share of taxes; against corporate attacks on post-retirement healthcare; to oppose ALEC's corrupt agenda and to support a campaigns to inform the public about ALEC and ALEC politicians.
The Alliance also launched its "Medicare Turns 50" campaign, calling attention to Medicare's 50th anniversary next year - July 30th 2015 - as an ideal opportunity to educate Americans on the merits and successes of the Medicare program. The Alliance will celebrate Medicare as America's most successful health care program and emphasize its 50-year history of giving seniors the ability to see a doctor and fill a prescription - benefits that keep millions of Americans out of poverty. As members of Congress like Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) hone in on dismantling the Medicare program and giving more power to Big Pharma and health care corporations, retiree activists will spend the next year organizing grassroots events nationwide, placing letters in their local papers, and calling attention to Medicare's successful track record.
Retiree leaders in the Alliance have seen over their lifetimes the rise in income inequality and its stronghold on the middle class. They have seen the increasing difficulty Americans have saving for retirement, to the point where many are simply not doing it. Making the problem worse, out-of-touch politicians continue to back proposals to break down the Medicare and Social Security systems - changes Alliance members say will only make the retirement security crisis worse.
In a tough political environment, the Alliance's active retirees are preparing to utilize their experience and willpower to continue the fight for retirement security. Their plan of action to educate voters and reverse restrictive voter ID laws that hurt retirees and minority populations is geared to mobilize retirees for a higher minimum wage, protecting pensions, and transforming the dangerous efforts to dismantle Medicare and Social Security into successful campaigns to expand the programs.
Photo: Hawaii Alliance for Retired Americans leaders Al Hamai and Jean Dobashi in Las Vegas, NV.