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Gray Panthers stalk votes in Bay State to ban forced retirement

If Maggie Kuhn has her way, the institution of mandatory retirement will become as unfamiliar to future generations as poor farms are today. A white-haired ball of fire, Miss Kuhn Tuesday rallied a crowd of the young, old, and middle-aged in support of legislation that, if passed, would ban mandatory retirement in Massachusetts.

As founder and leader of the national Gray Panther movement, Miss Kuhn has campaigned for the rights of older Americans for the last 14 years.

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This week, that fight brought her to Massachusetts where the Gray Panthers hope to win a major victory in their ongoing campaign against mandatory retirement.

A proposal to ban mandatory retirement is expected to come up for a vote in the legislature within the next two weeks. If it is passed, Massachusetts would be the seventh state to take such action. Only Vermont, Utah, Florida, New Hampshire, Maine, and Iowa have eliminated forced retirement.

In addition, Massachusetts would be the first heavily industrialized state to forbid mandatory retirement. (Certain job categories such as fire, police, and some business executives would be exempted.) Panther leaders say Massachusetts could set the trend for other industrialized states.

Traditionally, organized labor has been ''sitting on the fence'' about the mandatory-retirement issue, saysGerald Bergman, coordinator for the Boston chapter of the Gray Panthers. Mr. Bergman says things might be different this time: Labor may follow the lead of some legislators in supporting the bill.

Massachusetts state Sen. Jack Backman (D) says the bill has an ''excellent chance'' because it was recently approved in a joint legislative committee. Over the past six years, Senator Backman sponsored similar bills that never made it to the floor of the legislature.

The difference this time, according to Backman, is that the bill has the backing of Gov. Michael S. Dukakis (D), organized labor, and other legislators.

''Everything takes education,'' Backman says. ''This has been the myth of mandatory retirement that has been slow in dying.''

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Backman cites a formal letter of support from Lawrence Sullivan, who heads the Boston Central Labor Council, and James Sullivan, president of the Boston Chamber of Commerce.

That is fresh support for an issue that has been kicked around a while, according to the Panthers' Bergman, who says the Dukakis position is a reversal of the position taken by former Gov. Edward J. King.

On a national level, a bill to raise mandatory retirement to 70 years of age was passed by Congress in 1978. Since then, 22 states have passed their own laws that bolster the federal retirement standard.

But subsequent bills to eliminate the mandatory retirement age altogether have gone nowhere. And prospects for passage of such a bill, currently sponsored by Rep. Claude Pepper (D) of Florida, are not very encouraging, says a spokeswoman for the congressman.

Still, speaking from the steps of the State House in Boston, Miss Kuhn told her audience the time had come to reject a national tendency toward ''ageism - discrimination, stereotyping, and segregation of people on the basis of age.''

Instead of retiring and becoming isolated, older people have a natural basis for unity of action with young people because the two groups face similar problems, Miss Kuhn says.

''Ageism is just as hard on young people as old people. They have the same complaints. Both groups are poor, seldom taken seriously, often have drug problems - and they're out of the mainstream.''

Admitting the goal of ''inter-generational unity'' is a vast one, she says it isn't unrealistic or too idealistic if taken one bit (or one state) at a time.

''The possibility, you see, of looking at life as a continuum and aging as liberating can be a freedom from self-interest and (can) redirect life toward the public interest,'' she says. She also advocates ''wrinkled babyhood'' and ''tribal eldership.''

Miss Kuhn's crusade began in 1970, when she turned 65 and was forced to retire from her job in race relations with the United Presbyterian Church in New York.

Thus, she began a new career - fighting mandatory retirement and other forms of not-so-subtle discrimination against older people, she says. Gray Panthers now has about 60,000 members nationwide.

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