Supporters of ‘Medicare for All’ Prepare for Health Care Showdown

Organizers of the Labor Campaign for Single-Payer Healthcare plan a January 10 conference to kick off the project. They hope to mobilize a grassroots movement that politicians (and union leaders) cannot ignore. Photo: Jaclyn Kelley Higgs/CNA/NNOC

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.


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.


“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.

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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.”


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



garyro (not verified) | 01/12/09

I was honored to attend the conference in St. Louis. I am a member of SOAR (Retired Steelworkers 11-3) and several other steelworkers present from varied locations.

On the whole, good conference and confidence of some sort of action was high. Good heads on most of the folks attending and some sort of progress should be made.

My greatest fear and one I have seen before: In previous attempts to pass this bill--the bill was introduced and then sent to committee. In committee, it dies. Last year for instance, bill died although a few more house reps did cosponsor. This has occured in every instance since some sort of bill like this proposed from Truman times to now. In fact, Bull Moose party in 1913 proposed some of what H676 proposed. T Roosevelt would be proud the fantastic progress made.

This sort of needed reform will not happen unless folks push, push hard and keep pushing until it is enacted into law. Folks are going to have to monitor progress, not merely pack up and go home if local congressperson decides to cosponsor. I suspect some of the congressfolks have cosponsored to get rid of the troublemakers knowing full well the bill will go nowhere.

Very importantly, if the bill does become law; folks are going to have to keep track of ammendments. What is now a good, workable law could become overnight a monster bill that does as much harm as good.

evden eve (not verified) | 12/24/08

Very good article thank you...

Anonymous (not verified) | 12/10/08

the federal government implemented a solution to the fiscal imbalance through the additional transfer of dollars to provinces and territories. The ways in which this money is transferred, and how it will be spent by provincial and territorial governments, will greatly affect women’s access to social services and programs. how Congress reacts to the Administration's apparent repudiation of the sky is falling strategy they made Congress embrace just ten days ago.

Anonymous (not verified) | 12/08/08

I, like many retired government workers, have Medicare and CareFirst Blue Cross/Blue Shield. Medicare saves money for everyone and increases health care access. It is NOT socialized medicine. It is only pays your medical bills.

I totally support Socialized Medicine and always have. And I've been involved with helping to build some of the protests here in New York City in support of single payer health insurance.

With that said, could we have come up with a worse slogan than "MEDICARE FOR ALL"???

Anybody who's a senior citizen, or like me a caregiver for one, knows the huge areas of care that Medicare does not cover - including basic stuff like homecare, nursing home care, dentistry and prescription drugs. And any senior or caregiver knows that the insurance companies have their iron talons deep in the Medicare system, through the extortionate 'medigap' rackets built around Medicare Part B and Medicare Part D.

I know my uncle frequently has to choose between buying home heating oil and paying for his heart medication, thanks to the wonders of Medicare.

So, in advocating single payer health insurance, do we REALLY want to pose Medicare as a model?

How about we just stop mincing words, and say we want SOCIALIZED MEDICINE.

That's what we want, right?

And there's nothing wrong with Socialized Medicine (just ask a Canadian).

So why not say "SOCIALIZED MEDICINE FOR ALL" instead of advocating the expansion of the rotten and compromised Medicare system?

Medicare Dude (not verified) | 12/01/08

I think Obama will do what is right. The Medicare issue is bigger than anything we've faced so far, although the crisis is still a decade away. He'll have to address it or his legacy will be remembered for not doing so.

thanks to jane slaughter and labor notes for this superb, timely story. it's exactly what we need to catch up with the health care fight--especially for those of us in antiwar work who haven't kept up with it.

you've laid out the key players and coalitions, mostly falling along expected lines, but very important to understand.
these two comments are especially hopeful:

"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."

and, “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.”

here's one idea that may likely be already in the works:
given the massive numbers and enthusiasm of the obama volunteers, why not make a concerted effort to invite and engage local leaders from it to join this fight if they've not already? local leaders may be aware of the differences dudzic cites, but perhaps not many rank and filers. what an unbeatable groundswell of support that would generate!

thanks for the great story. looking forward to the fight and actually winning one this time.

mike ferner

Runtmg (not verified) | 11/25/08

The most important point that is made here is the desire to fight anyone who stands in the way of single payer healthcare. We have already had ominous notions from Barack Obama over what is affordable and have seen that his cabinet is not ready to address social change in any real or meaningful way.

He is a defender of the banks first and foremost and we will have to put a ton of pressure on him and the Democrats to get EFCA passed and to get single payer healthcare.

James Hovland (not verified) | 11/24/08

This is going to be a tough fight.

Right now, members of congress are collaborating with the insurance companies to force you and I to purchase their for-profit services. When a bunch of companies get together and say: "Yes, we'll let you pass these laws, as long as you force all the people to pay us", that's extortion. When Congress agrees to it, that's corruption!