Although it began as a social group, the recently chartered retiree chapter of the ABC Federation of Teachers has become increasingly political, says its president, Gayle Pekrul. “Many retirees are not interested in just being social — they want to be involved in the issues.”

ABC-Retired is one of several new retiree chapters in the CFT. Once found mostly in larger locals, retiree chapters are sprouting up in small to mid-size local unions too. ABC-Retired started in 2010 with 20 retirees and has already grown to 50. “It’s exciting to see new faces,” says Pekrul, “and they are not just people I’ve known during my working years.”

In November, the chapter worked phone banks for a successful school board election. “Not only do we retirees have more time,” Pekrul explains, “but we’ve done it before. Our members also go into their communities and are involved in other groups.”

The ABC parent union provides support to the retiree chapter, starting with $8000 seed money, an office in the local union office, and use of the photocopier. They have letterhead and buttons, circulate information by email, and publish an informative newsletter edited by the former editor of the local newsletter.

ABC-Retired wanted to be a chartered AFT affiliate to gain support from CFT and AFT. It wanted to send its own delegates to CFT Convention. Retirees who substitute teach wanted the benefit of the AFT liability insurance. And because the AFT pays dues to the AFL-CIO’s Alliance for Retired Americans, the retirees have a voice in national retirement issues.

Participation in the Newport-Mesa Federation retiree chapter took off in 1998 when an exodus of teachers retired after CFT helped win improved CalSTRS pensions. The chapter was formally chartered in 1999.

“We lost so many, building reps even, that we realized we needed a retiree chapter,” explained member Dave Brees. “I came aboard in 2001 and dues were only $20 a year. Now they are $40, but all that money stays local. We don’t have to pay per caps to CFT and AFT, but we have representation at CFT and AFT Conventions, and the Orange County Labor Federation, so we are involved.”

Another reason Newport-Mesa retirees join has to do with the district’s health benefits committee. The union has four seats on the committee and retirees get one. Brees has held the seat since 1986. The president of Newport-Mesa-Retired, former local president Phyllis Pipes, says the 155-member chapter is mostly social, “but when you mess with health benefits or pensions, that’s the sort of thing that gets us riled up.”

That happened a few years ago when the school board changed the level of benefits. Overnight one retiree established a Yahoo group so members were in instantaneous communication with each other. From Saturday to Sunday, the chapter turned out 100 retirees to picket the board and successfully fight back the proposal. Now one retiree who writes for Newport Beach Patch wants fellow retirees to occupy the school board.

Newport-Mesa-Retired also works closely with its parent local. Each August, the retirees hold an organizational meeting where the president of the parent local presents the state of the union.

During elections, retirees distribute literature and help phone bank. It participates in the California Alliance for Retired Americans, continues to communicate by email and publishes a newsletter. The recent issue published results of a survey that asked retired teachers what they do with their time: The responses contained dozens of volunteer and political activities. Brees concludes, “As retirees, we do have time, but we are kind of protective of it, so be careful what you ask us to do.”

— By Malcolm Terence, CFT Reporter, and Jane Hundertmark, Publications Director

How to charter a retiree chapter with AFT

AFT members are granted lifelong membership as soon as their local union updates his or her status from “working” to “retired-active” in its membership reports to AFT. Retirees receive publications and e-newsletters from AFT and CFT.

Across the country, AFT has chartered more than 100 retiree chapters. AFT publishes a helpful guide to starting a retiree chapter and also offers a three-day, all-expenses-paid orientation in Washington D.C., to make setting up a chapter as painless as possible.

Action in new chapters

  • San Jose/Evergreen-Retired, chartered in 2007, hosts regular social activities, is busy politically, and strives to keep its membership well informed. President Bill Jacobs says the chapter’s 100 retirees have worked phone banks and canvassed neighborhoods in past elections in collaboration with the central labor council. The retirees stay in close touch with their parent local and are planning a “full-court press” in the coming election.
  • Salinas Valley-Retired, chartered in 2009, has 200 retirees on its mailing list and 50 paid members in the chapter. Even though Co-President Cynthia Suverkrop describes the chapter as “apolitical in nature,” their recent luncheon meeting focused on the supercharged issues of Medicare and healthcare reform.