Supporters of ‘Medicare for All’ Prepare for Health Care Showdown
Union advocates of “Medicare for all” are organizing to make labor a united voice on health care reform—and to pressure Democrats to do the right thing.
Discussed in conference calls for months and officially launched in mid-November, the Labor Campaign for Single-Payer Healthcare aims to mobilize a grassroots movement of union members that politicians (and union leaders) cannot ignore.
Organizers plan a January 10 founding conference in St. Louis to bring together supporters, especially those who can put the weight of their locals, central labor councils, and state federations behind the project.
“We’re trying to avoid a repeat of 1993,” says Mark Dudzic, the campaign’s coordinator, “when one month after the inauguration, the AFL-CIO abandoned any support for a single-payer solution, and a year later they endorsed the Clinton plan.”
That plan, which suffered humiliating defeat, would have maintained private insurance companies’ grip on the health care system—as would proposals being discussed in Washington today.
JOINING THE BATTLE
It appears that next year both President Obama and Senator Ted Kennedy will back a bill for “individual mandates,” a concept that requires all residents to have their own insurance.
Such a law was passed in Massachusetts in 2006. There, the profit-making insurance companies and their expensive bureaucracies remain in place, and health care is still high-priced and hard for many to get. When it was passed, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney criticized the Massachusetts plan as “unconscionable” and “misguided.”
Some at the top of the labor movement, however, will feel privileged to be behind the closed doors in D.C. when a national bill for individual mandates is hammered out. Supporters of the Labor Campaign feel a sense of urgency to build heat from below, so Beltway compromisers can’t claim to speak for all of labor in settling for half-measures.
More than 600 labor bodies have already endorsed Rep. John Conyers’s single-payer bill, HR 676, including 20 national unions, 119 central labor councils, and 39 AFL-CIO state federations. “That number includes six state feds since Sweeney sent out a letter requesting the state feds to join up with HCAN,” points out Jerry Tucker, a retired United Auto Workers official active in the movement.
HCAN, Health Care for America Now, is a coalition that backs measures that keep insurance companies in the game. The AFL-CIO, the Service Employees union (SEIU), and Jobs with Justice belong to HCAN, for example, even though all have also endorsed single payer.
“There are real differences among national unions,” says Dudzic. “SEIU and AFSCME are solidly behind the HCAN approach. The Steelworkers and UAW are trying to look for some space. And there’s a small group of national unions that are really trying to push the envelope.”
The latter group includes the Machinists and the California Nurses Association.
The AFL-CIO seems to want a foot in both camps. A resolution passed last year mentioned single payer as one reform among many that the federation could support.
SEIZE THE DAY
“Given the severity of the current crisis, isn’t it time to build a grassroots movement that can actually change the balance of forces on health care?” asks Tucker. “Care-for-profit is a toxic prescription. If we buy into a watered-down plan, it won’t help anyone but the insurance companies.”
Tucker recalled repeated betrayals of labor’s trust in Democratic Congresses: a labor law reform bill went down to defeat under Jimmy Carter, as did a ban on striker replacements under Bill Clinton.
Donna Dewitt, president of the South Carolina AFL-CIO, thinks the reason some labor leaders are backing half-measures is that they have been “so desensitized by an administration where nothing could be accomplished.
“Labor was organized around this election,” Dewitt says. “Why should we at this point start backing up? You don’t go into bargaining asking for the least amount you think you can get. I don’t know why they don’t think the way they do in negotiations.”
Says Jos Williams, president of the metro labor council in Washington, D.C., “Let’s not put a compromise on the table. Let’s put what we want on the table.”
A GOOD BASE TO START FROM
One organizing model for the Labor Campaign is U.S. Labor Against the War, founded in 2003 to mobilize union members against the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Some of the same leaders are involved in the new group.
The Labor Campaign for Single-Payer Healthcare, however, starts from a much broader base, with a history of unions working together.
On conference calls this fall, reports came in that in Southern California 25 locals were coordinating action. All eight central labor councils in New Jersey are pro-single-payer, as is a network of teachers locals in New York state.
“What’s different from ’93-’94,” says Dudzic, “is that there’s incredible support for single payer at the grassroots of the labor movement, and it’s sophisticated support. People understand the differences among the proposals.”
One unknown factor is the effect of the economic crisis on the political process. “Things that were seen as impossible are now possible,” Dudzic said, adding that advocates will use the moment to stress single payer’s significant cost savings.
The Labor Campaign will work closely with another coalition formed in November, the Leadership Conference on Guaranteed Health Care, a group of labor and health activists.
This group met November 10 and 11 at the AFL-CIO’s Washington headquarters.
Asked whether the fact that this coalition met inside the AFL-CIO was a good omen, Williams said, “I wouldn’t presume to speak for my federation president. I would say I draw encouragement from the fact that these organizations held their meeting not far from the White House.”
Labor bodies wanting to send representatives to the January 10 conference should contact the group through