September 8, 2007

Alliance For Retired Americans: Union Retirees Meet In Washington, D.C.

About 600 union retirees and community-based allies met in Washington, D.C. on September 4-7 for the Alliance for Retired Americans' (ARA) legislative conference. The conference highlighted the anger and passion union retirees feel as the Bush administration continues to attack labor and labor rights, privatize services and move towards public-private service delivery models and undercut Medicare and healthcare. Retiree anger and passion were reflected in every speech given from the floor of the conference by retirees and in the workshops organized by ARA.

Senators Hilary Clinton and Debbie Stabenow, Representatives Chris Murphy and Dennis Kucinich, Elizabeth Edwards and union and Democratic Party staffers all addressed the conference and highlighted the Bush administration's failures. This was easy enough for them to do but I cannot say that any one candidate or approach had the enthusiastic support of everyone present. Clinton was clearly the most conservative but she also has her supporters among union activists. Kucinich spoke at the end of the conference, as did Elizabeth Edwards, and he was clearly the most driven and radical of the politicians to speak, but he did not draw the kind of support from the retirees that he needs.

Most speakers from the floor and many from the conference podium sounded antiwar themes and tied the war directly to a loss of services and deteriorating social conditions and political repression in the US when they had the opportunity. Those speaking from the floor pushed the politicians to do more and do better. There was the reflexive working class patriotism and the defensive support-the-troops-bring-them-home line but there were also calls for immediate withdrawal.

Much of the leadership of the conference and important blocs of the union rank-and-filers in attendance were African-American and Hispanic. The conference also brought together union members from both the AFL-CIO and the Change to Win federation. An ARA-sponsored lobby day mobilized retiree activists.

One of the unifying issues which the conference took up are the related matters of Medicare Advantage and the devastating effects of Medicare Part D. Medicare Advantage plans undercut Medicare by overpaying insurance companies and accelerating the depletion of the Medicare Trust Fund. Building a united and progressive national response to Medicare Advantage plans has been difficult because some union members and some regions of the US do better than others in this evolving system and because the debate within labor on healthcare has been so difficult in recent years. The conference took up these questions and moved forward with an agenda and lobbying which linked winning healthcare for children in the framework of a universal healthcare system to winning an equal playing field for Medicare and Medicare Advantage plans. Key to this is support for H.R. 3162, the Children's Health Insurance and Medicare Protection Act. Union retirees tend to believe that the Medicare Advantage overpayments should be going instead to Medicare and into the S-CHIP program.

Medicare Part D prohibits Medicare from bargaining for lower drug prices and these higher prices in turn help push Medicare towards insolvency. The House of Representatives passed a bill that requires Medicare to bargain for lower prices while the Senate version of the bill only permits Medicare to bargain for lower prices. Labor wants an up-or-down vote on the issue and is demanding that a group of 43 Senators drop their opposition to such a vote.

In workshops and in small-group meetings retirees debated whether we should demand national healthcare and Medicare for all or the reimportation of drugs at lower cost and universal care. These were healthy debates.

The conference focused on the 2008 elections. George Kourpias, ARA President, drew strong links between the cost of the war, cuts in senior services, the recent bridge collapses, the crisis in healthcare and the lack of help for victims of Hurricane Katrina. He also said that labor and labor's allies share the same needs and interests. Joslyn Williams, the African-American President of the Metropolitan Washington AFL-CIO Council, referred to the Republicans as "interlopers and squatters" in his welcoming remarks to the conference and took as his themes strong opposition to Bush and labor's search for progressive leadership. He made passing mention of liberating D.C. from Congress. Anna Burger, representing both SEIU and Change to Win, also tied the crisis in healthcare to the war in her speech to the conference. Long-time labor leader Bob Muehlenkamp showed a slideshow detailing increases in American productivity and the related decline in wages experienced by most workers today. Muehlenkamp's slideshow went beyond the regular populist economics we now hear at union conferences and helped build critical thinking and more radical conclusions.

Polling done by labor shows mass dissatisfaction and strong antiwar sentiment among union retirees as we head towards the 2008 elections. Rising healthcare costs rate far and away as the outstanding economic concern of union retirees with a strong majority motivated to vote for guaranteeing affordable healthcare for all and controls being placed on rising healthcare costs. The conference highlighted retiree opposition to privatizing Social Security, but polls indicate that union retirees may have lost faith in the viability or longevity of the Social Security system. The polls also indicate--and the conference often seemed to buttress this point--that retirees do not have strong faith in either the Democrats or the Republicans, although it would seem from labor polls that the retiree Republican vote is in sharp decline and that this decline will take us through the 2008 elections. Very few union retirees believe that any of the presidential candidates are addressing their issues. Few retirees also believe that the war is making the US safer, although the polls indicate that there is not agreement among retirees on when or how the US should withdraw from Iraq. Antiwar union retirees at the conference challenged some of this data from the floor. The questions of how important and functional polling is in determining labor--or, for that matter, working class--politics did not come up. We heard the tired and tiring rhetoric of "working families" but we also heard "working class." Even Elizabeth Edwards, doing her best to look like the harried worker next door, talked about revolution.

There was also a get-real tendency at the conference. When many retirees called the Democrats cowards for refusing to have a showdown with the Republicans or berated the Democrats for caving at the threat of a Presidential veto no one from the floor took strong exception and only a few speakers from the podium offered weak excuses.

In this atmosphere John Sweeney, AFL-CIO President, and the Democratic pollsters seemed almost lost, if not largely irrelevant. Even in a crowd of liberal-to-left union members they no longer quite fit in. The convention banquet featured an odd and barely-appreciated character reenactment of President Roosevelt--someone mistakenly thought that this would appeal to the generations present--and this look backwards went on too long and said more about the politics still inhibiting parts of the labor movement than it did about anything else. But even the weak and boring ghost of Roosevelt drew more enthusiasm than Sweeney and pollsters.

Especially prominent on the floor of the conference were retired teachers (AFT and NEA), steelworkers, autoworkers, healthcare and social service workers and garment workers. Large delegations came from New York, California, the upper Midwest, New England and Pennsylvania. Regional ARA meetings will follow and many upcoming union conventions will feature important retiree activist meetings as well.