Sanders draws roars from union retirees

WASHINGTON (PAI) – Hundreds of retirees, in D.C. for the legislative-political conference of the Alliance for Retired Americans (ARA), gave a warm welcome to Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind.-Vt., who is challenging Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries. They began with chants of “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!” and interrupted his speech with several long – and unprompted-standing ovations.

The enthusiasm of the ARA delegates is important: The union-backed organization has 4.3 million members in every congressional district nationwide. And those retired unionists in turn represent the consistently largest and most-active political constituency in the U.S. – Democratic, Independent or Republican – the elderly.

ARA delegates gave Sanders — a down-the-line supporter of unions, workers and their rights, the elderly, Social Security and Medicare — thunderous applause as he reiterated those stands. After his speech, delegates spent their afternoon lobbying for those causes, too.

Sanders knew what the crowd wanted, which is what he has preached for his 24-year career in Congress and what he gave to the ARA on July 9: An active endorsement of their goals. He and the delegates are led by protecting and expanding Social Security – by scrapping the wage cap on income taxed to provide for benefits and using that money to pay more to beneficiaries. The American people want that, too, Sanders declared.

“Because of the ARA and other groups like it and because of the trade union movement, there was a poll two weeks ago in the Wall Street Journal, where 61 percent of the people said ‘lift the caps,’ while 20 percent opposed,” he added, to cheers.

“But the struggle is not only to extend and expand Social Security,” he said. “It’s to have Medicare for all” – he specified it should be a single-payer government-run health plan – “and a national standard of living with dignity, raising the minimum wage to be a living wage, and to have pay equity for woman workers.”

And then Sanders threw in his continued denunciation of further so-called “free trade” agreements that he said drive down U.S. wages and drive out U.S. jobs. He particularly cited the upcoming Trans-Pacific Partnership with 11 Pacific nations. “No TPP!” yelled one delegate. “Right!” Sanders replied.

Expansion of Social Security, defeat of the TPP and preservation of Medicare against GOP efforts to convert it to a voucher system – Sanders blasted that, too – were all on the issues agenda that ARA delegates took to Capitol Hill after his speech.

The reception there, especially from Congress’ ruling Republicans, is another matter.

“There is a massive well-funded effort to destroy Social Security and Medicare,” Sanders warned the delegates before they boarded their busses. He blamed the GOP and its right wing and business backers for that campaign.

“There are folks like the Koch brothers” – Kansas City oilmen who plan to spend $965 million on the 2016 presidential race – “who believe we should end Social Security, end Medicare, end Medicaid and end virtually every piece of legislation passed in this country since FDR came to office. And we will not allow that!” Sanders stated.

Congressional Republicans have openly espoused those goals, he added.

Preaching to the crowd and citing his record haven’t been Sanders’ only moves to win union backing. He’s met both teachers’ union leaders on issues, strategy and tactics, and he’ll meet on July 13 at the Postal Workers headquarters with 30-40 union leaders, APWU President Mark Dimondstein told Politico. Dimondstein preceded Sanders to the ARA podium.

Those leaders will include former Communications Workers President Larry Cohen – who has already endorsed Sanders – and Cohen’s successor at CWA, Chris Shelton. A day later, Clinton will greet union leaders at her campaign manager’s home.

But while Sanders promised the ARA crowd that he and others of the Congressional Defend Social Security Caucus would do all they can on Capitol Hill, he warned the group that lawmakers’ maneuvering alone isn’t enough.

It’ll take a grass-roots effort, much, though he did not say so, like his insurgent presidential campaign, to stop the opposition, he stated.

“So let us go forward so we can have government that works for all the people – and not just for a handful of millionaire campaign contributors,” he concluded.



Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.