CHICAGO – Although her e-mail is still sent to the Illinois State Council of Senior Citizens, Connie Engholm is now the executive director of the Illinois Alliance of Retired Americans (IARA). The new organization, the first state affiliate of the Alliance of Retired Americans (ARA), was founded on April 5 and brings together more than 126 retiree clubs scattered across the state.

“We are very proud of being the first state to build an organization that brings union retirees and those who belong to faith-based and community organizations together under the banner of a single organization,” Engholm told the World.

Margaret Blackshere, president of the Illinois AFL-CIO, credits several unions with making it possible to organize the state ARA organization. “In the first place we already had a network of union retiree clubs and a very influential State Council of Senior Citizens. Both groups saw the advantage of building the ARA and in reaching out to retiree groups whose members may never have enjoyed the advantage of belonging to a union.”

The ARA, with a ready-made base of 2.5 million union retirees, was founded by a cooperative effort of the AFL-CIO and the National Council of Senior Citizens in 2001. The organization is financed by contributions from AFL-CIO affiliates, a process that makes every retiree an instant member of ARA.

According to Bill Looby, communications director of the state federation, there are about 170,000 union retirees in Illinois. “We have a large number, given that Illinois has a fairly high union density and more than a million organized workers,” he told the World.

In his remarks to the opening session of the convention, George Kourpias, ARA president, singled out Social Security and a prescription drug plan as the organization’s top issues. “These are our issues and they are right,” he said to applause. “We’re not going to give up Social Security and we’re not going to accept ‘voucherization’ of Medicare, in the name of reform.”

Kourpias also warned of what he called the danger of a “bad bill” because, once on the books, it would be difficult to change. “We demand a voluntary, universal and affordable prescription drug plan that is a part of Medicare and available to all,” he added.

Although he urged participants to continue to push for prescription drug plans at the state level, Kourpias said the problem is a “national problem, demanding a national solution.”

Pedro Rodreguez, ARA executive vice president, represents what he calls the “community side” the organizations such as church social clubs and other senior organizations that are banded together in the Community Advocacy Network.

In his remarks to the convention Rodreguez said ARA offers the opportunity to “seize the anger and frustration” of those who “will settle for nothing less than a secure and dignified retirement. We have an opportunity to redefine what is meant by ‘golden years.’’’

Michael Klein, a representative of the AFL-CIO Midwest Region, said the refusal of many doctors to treat Medicare patients “reflects the policies of the White House.” Klein pointed to many examples of the right wing attempt to wrap its attack on working people in the flag. “It’s unpatriotic when we know that our government is doing wrong and we don’t say anything,” he said.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), one of the 63 Democrats to vote against the “Patriot Act” last October, echoed Klien’s remarks in her keynote speech. “It’s not unpatriotic to fight for people’s needs,” she said as she called on seniors “to give courage to members of Congress who are afraid to fight.”

Rodreguez said several states, among them Georgia and Florida, hope to duplicate the Illinois example in the next few months, adding: “We are planning a national meeting in Washington over the Labor Day weekend of Sept. 3-6 where we hope to have 1,000 delegates.’

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Fred Gaboury
Fred Gaboury

Fred Gaboury was a member of the Editorial Board of the print edition of  People’s Weekly World/Nuestro Mundo and wrote frequently on economic, labor and political issues. Gaboury died in 2004. Here is a small selection of Fred’s significant writings: Eight days in May Birmingham and the struggle for civil rights; Remembering the Rev. James Orange; Memphis 1968: We remember; June 19, 1953: The murder of the Rosenbergs; World Bank and International Monetary Fund strangle economies of Third World countries