You can't win the game if you don't show up for it.
That was the mantra of the State Universities Annuitant's Association when it was formed in 1971, and it's an approach that has carried through to the current statewide debate over retiree benefits.
"This is a dynamic time and it's really about having a voice at the table that is committed to speaking up for your interests," said Thomas F. Conry, the president of the U. of I. SUAA chapter and a professor emeritus of engineering.
But it's been a difficult time to have one's voice heard over the cacophony of issues competing for attention - and limited funding - at the state capitol.
Conry said SUAA leaders have had to be especially plugged into the happenings in Springfield, where it has seemed a new issue or proposal affecting retirees pops up daily.
"The most challenging thing for our members has been the uncertainty," he said.
The more than 2,000 members of the local chapter have had an information advantage during that period, with the SUAA website providing legislative updates, and through local newsletters and chapter meetings held twice a year.
Members had direct access to several area legislators at a forum on April 7, with state Sen. Chapin Rose and Rep. Naomi Jakobsson offering their insights into the long-running pension and health care debate.
When the state's university presidents announced two days later they had endorsed an alternate pension plan prepared by the U. of I.'s Institute of Government and Public Affairs, SUAA members had already heard about it at the meeting.
Two contract statehouse lobbyists keep leaders informed about active legislation affecting members.
"They're seasoned hands and they have kept us up to date on any bills that are out there affecting us," Conry said.
And it's not just financial issues at stake. The SUAA was behind the recent effort to exempt public universities from a bill that would create an Illinois concealed-carry law, and last year the organization led the way in beating back at the ballot box a vaguely worded constitutional amendment leaders said would have had a far-reaching negative effect on university employees.
"We felt very strongly that campuses should be exempt from that," he said of the concealed-carry legislation.
As for the constitutional amendment, "SUAA was sounding the warning and took the lead."
The local chapter also offers members special services, including survivor workshops that provide specialized information for members who recently have had a spouse die.
Conry said the chapter currently is seeking to increase its reach by increasing local membership - because the issues currently being discussed don't just affect current retirees. An annual membership costs $39.
"The issues are going to affect every employee at some point," he said. "If they're a member or not, we're still fighting their pension battles. But larger groups have greater influence."
He said the current benefits issues go beyond personal interest and eventually affect institutional integrity.
"Being able to show stability is important to recruiting and retaining the best people," he said. "It affects all levels and eventually leads to student quality as well. It's already having an impact on campus and it has to be staunched."