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Labor Rallies for Health Care, But Keeps it Vague

It’s no secret that the union movement is divided on health care reform.

It’s no secret that the union movement is divided on health care reform. Resolutions favoring “Medicare for All,” a single-payer system, have been passed by 558 unions, central labor councils, state federations, and other union organizations. Yet in practice leaders of many of those same unions have acted as if actual single-payer legislation (Representative John Conyer’s HR 676 and Senator Bernie Sanders’ S703) didn’t exist.

They’ve promoted milder changes that will leave private insurance companies in place, instead of kicking them out of the temple, as every other industrialized country—from Canada to Japan—has done. In effect, labor’s leaders are placing on the table first what logically should be their fall-back position.

They’ve gone along with the D.C. consensus that the most that can be won is a plan that includes a “public option” to compete in the marketplace with private companies. And they’re not wrong about the unwillingness of this Congress to buck the system. Conyers was asked in May, “What would it take this Congress to pass single payer?” He replied, “Nuclear weaponry.”

Even so, the staunchest single-payer advocates believe they will win most by continuing to agitate for what they really want rather than a compromise. These folks see large amounts of activists’ anger and energy wasted.


A big June 25 rally at the Capitol sponsored by the AFL-CIO and Health Care for America Now (HCAN), both of which steer clear of single payer, was attended by 7,000 people. But the organizers “didn’t know what to get them fired up about,” said Mark Dudzic of the Labor Campaign for Single Payer.

“It was a good, high-spirited group of people, who want to fight, who honestly believe they’re fighting for national health care,” he said. “A lot of the focus of the rally was to mobilize anger at private insurance companies, and it’s tragic where the leaders want to leave those folks.”

John Armelagos, grievance chair at the University of Michigan Professional Nurse Council, said the rally and subsequent lobbying visits were well-scripted but light on details. Every speaker, Democratic leaders and union heads alike, promised that any health care bill that emerged would include some “public option,” and most participants cheered.

“They thought that would save the day,” he said. “It was all very fluid and not concrete.”

When New York’s Senator Chuck Schumer kicked off the rally with a speech heavy on rally slogans, a large group of single-payer supporters in front began chanting “we want single payer.” He ignored them, and the rally marshals walked them to the back of the crowd.

Armelagos said the rally’s most specific speaker, AFSCME President Gerald McEntee, attacked a proposed tax on already existing health-care benefits, an idea gaining popularity among Democratic senators. The intent is to raise part of the estimated $1.2 trillion needed to expand coverage using the current private-insurance model. (Such a tax would hit many union members, who enjoy better-than-average coverage.)

Obama campaigned last year against John McCain’s proposal to tax benefits, but now won’t rule the idea out. Armelagos left D.C. frustrated that labor’s efforts are now devoted to fighting a position taken by Republicans in the last election, leaving wide open other crucial questions.

For instance, if most insurance will still be provided by employers, he asks, “does that mean people who don’t have jobs won’t have coverage?”

Madelyn Elder, president of Communications Workers (CWA) Local 7901, talked to rally participants who said over and over they’d prefer single payer “because it would be the cheapest and easiest way, but there’s no way we’d get it passed in Congress.” A subsidiary variation included, “I’d hate to lay off all those people who work in the private health insurance industry.”