Labor goes gray
The American labor movement, facing a falloff in clout as fewer workers wear the union label, is hoping for a shot in the arm from an unlikely source of vigor: retirees.
In January, the AFL-CIO quietly established the Alliance for Retired Americans, a national organization that plans to automatically enroll–and pay annual dues for–workers as they retire from about 50 of the 66 national unions in the giant labor confederation. A public launch is planned for May.
Officials of the new group, which will also welcome retirees from outside the union ranks, say it could have a membership of up to 2.5 million older Americans by the end of the year, a sizeable force by any standard. These are “people who understand working families’ issues–having lived them through their work life–who can help the rest of us move a positive family agenda,” says Massachusetts AFL-CIO president Robert Haynes.
Massachusetts is regarded as a national leader in the new effort to link union causes and senior issues. A year ago, the state AFL-CIO struck an agreement with the Massachusetts Senior Action Council, a statewide advocacy group, to work together on issues of common concern. And Mass. Senior Action’s longtime director, Geoffrey Wilkinson, was tapped to be one of two national vice presidents of the new Alliance for Retired Americans (the other is national AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Richard Trumka).
“I don’t want to get too schmaltzy,” Wilkinson says of the new venture. “But this is a vision that reinvigorates the notion that relationships count across generations.”
It’s also a vision that banks on a bonanza of union-worker retirements over the next two decades. While 32.9 percent of the overall US workforce is age 45 or older, 43.4 percent of the unionized workforce falls into that age range.
But the coming jackpot for the senior alliance also represents the graying of the union work force. Labor leaders are acutely aware that bulking up with senior muscle is no cure for shrinking membership.
Union workers now represent just 13.5 percent of the US work force, a percentage that has been shrinking steadily as manufacturing jobs move overseas and as new job growth occurs in high-tech and other sectors where labor lacks a firm foothold.“We’re behind the eight-ball, there’s no question about that,” Haynes says of the wave of union members approaching retirement. “We’ve got to organize.”
Finally, with most of the retiree recruits to the new labor senior corps being drafted into it, a fair question might be, will this army fight? Wilkinson and other alliance leaders know that impressive membership rolls without an active membership could render the group more of a toothless tiger than a fearsome new senior force–and labor ally–to be reckoned with.