Robert Roach Jr.’s career as a labor leader began shortly after he went to work for Trans World Airlines in 1975, when he joined a fight to improve the conditions of new employees at the now-defunct airline. He hasn’t stopped fighting since.
After rising through the ranks of the International Association of Machinists, Roach retired as the union’s general secretary‐treasurer in July 2015. Now he’s president of the 3 million-member Alliance for Retired Americans, which works to mobilize retired union members, seniors and activists into a nationwide grassroots movement.
Roach will travel to St. Paul May 6 for a conference planned by local retirees fighting back against attacks on health care, pensions and the social safety net. Click here for registration information.
We reached out to Roach for a preview of what conference-goers can expect from his keynote speech, and to learn more about the issues retirees are organizing around nationally. His answers have been edited for length.
UA: You’re continuing your work as a labor leader in retirement. Isn’t that the opposite of how retirement is supposed to work?
RR: “In the Machinists union we have a rule – a good rule – that we retire at age 65 from executive office. It allows new people and new ideas to come up through the ranks. But it doesn’t mean that we’re off going fishing. I think those of us who’ve had the opportunity to serve and were able to retire should certainly stay involved.”
UA: You accepted an invitation to address a conference in St. Paul entitled “Family Security and Retiree Power in a Time of Crisis.” Do you agree we’re in a time of crisis?
RR: “Absolutely. I’m 66 years old, and this is as bad as I’ve seen it. The reforms they talk about – and ‘reform’ actually is code for taking something from somebody – are a vicious attack on senior citizens, which translates into an attack on the whole family structure. People now are either having to move in with mom or dad because they can’t get decent jobs, or they have to take mom or dad home because they’ve lost some of their benefits or don’t have the proper health care. People can’t move up.”
UA: How are retirees joining the resistance?
RR: “We want to talk about unity. As Secretary Clinton, a good friend of mine, said, we are stronger together. We must come together and align ourselves with like-minded people to ensure that we have strength.
“But I am very concerned. In all this talk about Russia, a lot of things are not being looked at. You turn on some of these cable-news channels, and it’s 24 hours of Russia, Russia, Russia – which is a very important issue. But what about Planned Parenthood? What about Medicaid? What about protection for senior citizens? What about protections for working men and women?
“When I was in elementary school, I used to have to get under my desk because the Russians were coming and they were going to drop a bomb on us or something. It was a drill. Let me tell you something, the Russians have been coming for 60 years.”
UA: How do we organize like-minded people when the opponent is as good at driving a wedge between us as this president has proven to be?
RR: “It all starts locally, with sitting down and talking with people, educating them and asking them, how is this affecting you? We have to take those issues that are important to working families and make people aware of what’s at stake. Because we are being distracted by a showman who throws these tweets out, and we spend hours and hours talking about a tweet. But it distracts us from the real issues.”
UA: Many of the issues ARA organizes around – trade, for example – go beyond what might be considered “senior issues.” What’s the connection?
RR: “All these things that affect working people, at the end of the day, affect seniors. We’re all a family. If there are no new people coming into a retirement program, that jeopardizes existing seniors. When employers subcontract work out or ship it to Mexico, it affects seniors who are already retired. And ultimately, if we fight for them, they will fight for us.”
UA: What would you say to young workers who might scoff at the notion they’re ever going to see Social Security or pension benefits?
RR: “That’s a myth. This is more of the propaganda they’ve put together to keep people from fighting for a defined-benefit pension plan. They’ll tell you a 401(k) is going to make you a millionaire. At one point in time, I sat where they sit. Now I’m fortunate enough to have had a pension I could retire from. And I was in the thick of the fights during the airline bankruptcy. There are people in Minnesota today at those airports, whether they realize it or not, who continue to enjoy a defined-benefit pension because we, as a union, fought for them. But if there is no fight, you will not have a benefit.”