Retirees Group Celebrates Five Years of Action

Gloria Alt and Ron Krueger share a story at the Retirees United annual convention.
Gloria Alt and Ron Krueger share a story at the Retirees United annual convention.

AFSCME Council 5 Retirees United is turning five, marking a half-decade of volunteering in communities, helping elect worker-friendly candidates and serving as fierce pension watchdogs.

In just five years, the group’s built its membership to 2,770 retirees in six chapters across the state.

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Yet chapter president Jeff Birttnen says that to him, the anniversary means they’re just getting started.

“We’ve been in existence for this time learning about what we can do and how strong we are and can be, so that looking forward we can add to that and become a force in conjunction with Council 5, to make sure that we elect the proper people to protect our pensions, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid,” Birttnen says.

“I see us as a second family, my AFSCME family,” says Judie Atkins, president of the East Metro Subchapter. “We all feel that. We have built that because we work together. There’s just so many things we have done.”

Retirees Peter Benner, Patricia Skog, Linda Pearson and Ross Anderson chat before the convention starts.
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Retirees United are a frequent sight volunteering at local food shelves, the Letter Carriers’ Stamp Out Hunger Food Drive and Fare for All, which supplies reasonably priced food to the public. The retirees turned T-shirts into food bags, and made blankets as part of the Council 5 drive to benefit domestic violence survivors at Safe Haven.

As pension watchdogs, they’ve had representatives at every Legislative Commission on Pensions and Retirement hearing, and at each successive step in the House and Senate.

The retirees phone bank around pensions and other AFSCME issues. They make calls and door knock to elect worker- and retiree-friendly lawmakers at all levels of government.

The newly elected Retirees United Executive Board takes the oath of office.
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Retirees United is a rich source of companionship and entertainment for its members, too. Meetings are paired with lunches, coffee and special speakers. They take outings like boat rides.

“You guys really are leading the way,” AFSCME International retiree field manager Ben Hodapp said at the Retirees United Convention on Thursday, May 10. “You did a lot to make sure you’re a fighting force for retirees and all Americans.”

The retirees have been part of AFSCME history and will help shape our future, too, says Council 5 executive director John P. Westmoreland.

“It’s an honor and privilege to stand here before you,” Westmoreland says. “I am a benefactor of what you all did. You should be proud you have a chapter that leads the nation. You guys do great work.”

Many of the retirees were around in the early 1970s, when the Minnesota Public Employment Labor Relations Act (PELRA) became law, officially giving public workers the right to collectively bargain.

Yet AFSCME started long before the law recognized those rights. Local 66 turns 100 next year. AFSCME formed in 1932.

“We’re in a fight for our very existence,” Westmoreland said.  Big corporations and the rich are going after our union rights in courts and legislators. “There are only two sides: There is no middle ground here. They’re coming after collective bargaining, they’re coming after pensions, they’re coming after healthcare, they’re coming after everything that has been earned decades beforehand. They are promising to take rights away from everyone.”

The governor’s election is only six months away. If a Tim Pawlenty or Jeff Johnson wins, they’ll try to turn Minnesota into Wisconsin or Michigan.

“We have to defend this,” Westmoreland said. “We’re standing on your shoulders, and we recognize that and we recognize your value.”

Council 5 president Judy Wahlberg thanked retirees for all they do, and said she’ll be among them very soon. She’s retiring May 31 from her job, and will stay on at the Council until a new president is elected.

“I’m happy to join you guys, if the smile on my face isn’t enough to tell you that,” Wahlberg said with a laugh.

Retirees United elected its new board:

  • President Jeff Birttnen
  • Vice President Tammy Hughes
  • Secretary Marcia Provost
  • Treasurer Steve Barrows
  • Trustees Suzanne Edwardy, Jeanette Burfeind and Sharon O’Boyle
  • Subchapter representatives to the board: Mike Nelson, Jean Miller, Mike Patrick, Ross Anderson, Tammy Oachs and Judie Atkins.