Retirees Called Back to Labor Battle
Ed Purtill was at the front lines of the labor movement for most of his working life. Purtill, a 69-year-old retired factory worker, walked the picket lines for pensions and health benefits in the '50s and '60s. After he became local president of the International Chemical Union, Purtill led strikes at the soap manufacturing plant in Edgewater, N.J., where he worked. "We had two strikes during my tenure. Both were successful, at great sacrifice to the workers," he said. But since those victory days, a lot of the hard-earned gains made by Purtill and other union activists have been lost. Slackening union enrollment, internal corruption and the evisceration of members' benefits have taken their toll on the power and authority of unions. Now, union leaders are looking to Purtill and retirees like him to help the labor movement come back. National union leaders have recruited Purtill and 11 other veteran union activists, all of them retired, to lead an army of their retired colleagues in key cities to help unions organize nonunion workers. The effort, Senior Summer, is an offshoot of the AFL-CIO's Union Summer program aimed at getting college students interested in labor activities. "Organizing the unorganized workers, that's the whole purpose of Union Summer," said Rosalie Whelan, Senior Summer's program director. College students and senior volunteers are being mobilized in New Jersey, Los Angeles, Miami, New York City, Milwaukee and Seattle. Some seniors have been quick to join the fray. In Los Angeles, for example, seniors were on the battle lines to unionize the Japanese-owned New Otani Hotel and Garden, which has 280 workers, most of them immigrants. Two senior coordinators run each local site and train the volunteers to participate in "rapid response teams" -- filling up the picket lines when needed, for example. Coordinators then report on the efforts from the field to AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington. Many of the retirees who witnessed the historic achievements of labor offer themselves as living proof that organizing is the only way to protect workers' rights. Louise Parry, a 76-year-old retired member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and a coordinator of the Seattle Senior Summer site, put it bluntly: "Where would your weekend be, honey, if not for the workers who fought for the 40-hour work week?" The only eligibility requirement for seniors who apply to help is that they be former union members, according to organizers. The AFL-CIO has a budget to fill 360 slots for the program, and as of late July 225 were filled. Union planners say not all volunteers can meet the physical strains of passing out leaflets and participating in rallies for hours on hot summer days. "Some have limitations. Organizing takes physical activity," said Whelan. But those with health problems yet eager to help solve today's labor problems can be fitted in, according to senior coordinators. "A guy last week got a leg amputated and wanted to help out," said Nick Kourambis, 72, coordinator of the Senior Summer site in New Jersey. "Another guy was going into the hospital and said he'd be okay in a couple of weeks." Kourambis, who is himself confined to a wheelchair, said such would-be volunteers can work at union phone banks or perform other light tasks after recovering. David Montgomery, a labor historian at Yale University, said the outside help provided by seniors can make a difference in the fight to organize low-paid, nonunion workers. But Montgomery, author of the widely praised The Fall of the House of Labor, added: "The crucial thing, of course, is that the workers take the initiative and get mobilized. There's only so much you can do from the outside." Union members say they are glad to get the help from the retirees. "They've given us a transfusion. They are so enthusiastic and active and positive. Some of us were beginning to lose faith a little bit," said Lory Schalk, a registered nurse at Bergen Pines County Hospital in Paramus, N.J., a Senior Summer site. "They are so effective because of their life experience," she said. Unions and community groups there are fighting a county plan to privatize the hospital. AFL-CIO planners are using the seniors not only as activists, but as educators who can influence young people involved in Union Summer. For example, AFL-CIO planners are scheduling intergenerational discussion groups between the youths and retirees on the topic of political involvement. Amy Cohen, education coordinator at the AFL-CIO, explained: "Seniors are very involved politically, and young people are the least involved." Retirees say they like working with the young people in Union Summer and see the young as at a disadvantage in today's workplace. "I want to help young people who want to make life better in the United States, and see that people have family-wage jobs, and that they have dignity and they can provide for their retirement," said Parry.[EDITOR: STORY CAN END HERE.]Through their involvement in labor causes, seniors are also working to alter the perceptions of college students about what it means to be old. Retirees and young people gathered in Harpers Ferry, Va., one weekend this spring for an orientation to the Union Summer and Senior Summer campaigns now under way. Kate Bernard, the office manager who coordinates the elderly component of the program for the AFL-CIO in Washington, recalled a sensitivity session where misperceptions were particularly strong among the young people. "They were asked what words come to mind when you think of senior citizens," she said. "One kid said, 'moldy.' Someone else said, 'sick.' (The facilitator) asked, 'Don't some young people get sick too?'" In contrast, the seniors were positive about the young, using words like "energetic" and "bright." "Louise Parry was there. She's 76 years old and she's a mountain climber in her spare time. She's certainly not some granny sitting around in a rocking chair," said Bernard. Another myth buster was Margaret Sowma, coordinator of Senior Summer in Los Angeles. Less than two years ago Sowma was struck by a car and suffered a fractured back. By last Christmas, however, she was back on her feet and right away got herself arrested in a civil disobedience action. She and others were protesting what they considered a sweatshop that exploits workers. The site of the demonstration was a department store that sells garments made at the shop. "We chained ourselves to a sewing machine and we pushed it up to one of the doors in front of the department store," Sowma said with a chuckle. "No one could get in or out of the door. I'd never been arrested before. They called the paddy wagon. The union lawyer got us out of jail."SIDEBAR 1 92 wordsNational Effort to Tap Retiree StrengthThe Senior Summer program is the result of collaboration between the AFL-CIO in Washington and more than 20 international unions throughout the country, including the Service Employees International Union and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union. Through the AFL-CIO, other union giants are tapping the senior volunteers in various campaigns to organize nonunion workers. Funding for the program is coming from AFL-CIO coffers. Coordinators of the various sites are paid $500 weekly. Volunteers receive $15 a day for out-of-pocket expenses. The program runs through August.SIDEBAR 2 125 words Union Elders Quickly Join the Picket LinesIn Los Angeles, this month union elders joined in a fight to unionize the Japanese-owned New Otani Hotel and Garden, which has 280 workers, most of them immigrants. Local 11 of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union Retirees claims three hotel workers were fired, allegedly for trying to form a union there. In the ongoing struggle with New Otani, the union has staged demonstrations and a boycott and even sent delegations to Japan three times to rally Asian unions against the hotel. These tactics are "grossly unfair," said Charles Ecker of Concordia Associates, a public relations firm representing the owners. He said the hotel management fired the workers -- three maids -- not for trying to unionize but for cheating on the hours they claimed they worked.Karen Winner is an investigative reporter based in New York. She is author of the book Divorced from Justice .Contacts: Ed Purtill, union activist, United Labor Agency, AFL-CIO Community Services, Hackensack, N.J., 201-342-3955. Rosalie Whelan, director, Senior Summer, AFL-CIO, Washington, D.C., 202-637-5000. Louise Parry, coordinator, Senior Summer, Seattle, Wash., 206-441-3473. Nick Kourambis, coordinator, Senior Summer, United Labor Agency, AFL-CIO Community Services, Hackensack, N.J., 201-342-3955. Margaret Sowma, coordinator, Senior Summer, AFL-CIO, Los Angeles, Calif., 213-381-5611. David Montgomery, professor, Yale University, New Haven, Conn., 860-568-6480. Lory Schalk, registered nurse, Bergen Pines County Hospital, Paramus, N.J., 201-967-4019. Amy Cohen, education coordinator, Senior Summer, AFL-CIO, Washington, D.C., 202-637-5000. Kate Bernard, office manager, Senior Summer, AFL-CIO, Washington, D.C., 1-888-823-5246. Charles Ecker, spokesperson, Concordia Associates, Venice, Calif., 310-823-1720.