Seniors show fighting spirit at Capitol

WASHINGTON — The clear thrust of the Alliance for Retired Americans convention here Sept. 5-8 was to oust the right-wing government savaging America’s senior citizens. Not only was the intention of the 500-plus delegates clear, but the convention showed the ARA increasingly has the muscle to carry out its intent.

From a small group of union retirees five years ago, the organization now claims 3.6 million members. Twenty-seven states now have a local apparatus, and tens of thousands of retiree activists receive political information and other news. ARA spans differences among unions, labor federations and other divisions. Anyone can join, whether a union member or not.

The population ARA represents is mushrooming as baby boomers begin to hit retirement age. Statistics show that by 2030, the percentage of older voters will have doubled. Longtime participants said the convention’s new emphasis on community groups significantly raises future expectations of political clout for America’s retirees. The group’s executive board added six new community-based leaders.

Seniors have far better voting records than younger Americans, and their persistent commitment to democracy makes them especially important in non-presidential elections. Union leaders explained their commitment to the ARA with statistics showing retired union members tend to support working-class candidates and issues far better than other seniors. In his introductory speech, President George Kourpias said, “Retirees will determine who wins and who loses this fall!”

ARA delegates wasted no time deciding what must be done, but spent their time planning how to do it and putting some plans into action.

Most of Sept. 7 was taken up with a rally in front of the nation’s Capitol. Gerald McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, led the rally with strong calls to defeat the Bush agenda. No fewer than 20 representatives and senators, all Democrats, joined the rally to express their commitment to seniors’ issues and to publicly sign the “Golden Pledge” to save Social Security from privatization. Senate leader Harry Reid and House leader Nancy Pelosi were among them.

Afterward, delegates spent hours finding their own political representatives in an extensive lobbying campaign. A special target was Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Rick Santorum, disliked by seniors for his support of Social Security privatization as much as other progressive Americans dislike him for his racist attacks on immigrant workers. Political experts told the ARA delegates that Santorum has vastly outspent his Democratic opponent, Bob Casey, but still lags in the polls.

Political analysts from a number of unions and other organizations lifted the retirees’ hopes. Predictions for success in November characterized nearly all the speeches.

Another sign of the ARA’s growing strength was the democracy evident in the discussion on resolutions. Like most union conventions, a leadership body screened the resolutions in advance, but comments from the floor showed effective participation by the delegate body.

In one case, a resolution on insurance fraud was referred back to the incoming leadership on a motion by delegate Bea Lumpkin, a steelworker from Chicago. Lumpkin and others pointed out that only patient fraud was mentioned in the resolution, while insurance company fraud is by far the larger problem. Other resolutions committed the organization to the long-term fight on its major concerns: pensions, health care and Social Security.