Organized labor, a major force in the election of President Obama and other key Democrats, is throwing its great political strength into the drive for a reformed health care system that would include the option of a public insurance plan.
The AFL-CIO has begun mobilizing union members across the country in an attempt to show political leaders that there’s broad support for a public plan that would compete with the private, for-profit insurance industry and provide better and cheaper care.
“A quality public health insurance option is a crucial part of health care reform, to keep private insurance companies honest, hold down costs and ensure that everybody has a health care choice available,” says AFL-CIO President John Sweeney. “The key is forcing insurance companies to compete. And the only way to force real competition is a strong public plan option.”
Congressional Democrats who fail to support a public plan run the serious risk of losing labor’s backing in their next election campaigns as they very well should. Anyone doubting the importance of labor backing need only recall last fall’s elections. More than a quarter-million union members campaigned for Obama and other Democrats, spent more than $450 million on the campaign and made up more than one-fifth of all voters.
And anyone doubting labor’s chances of success in the drive for health care reform need only recall the crucial role played by unions in the enactment of Medicare in 1965, and their role before that in creating the employer-based health care system that provides important benefits for all working people, union and non-union alike.
Many of those benefits are now in jeopardy because of the ever-rising costs of health care — costs that many employers have little choice but to pass on to their employees, who often can’t afford to pay them, and so lose part or all of their health coverage.
Unions are working with an alliance of grassroots organizations to form a “health care mobilization team” aimed at energizing supporters and giving strong backing to politicians and others who agree with their reform proposals with special attention to Democrats who are wavering in their support for fear of political consequences.
Non-supporters are certain to run into heated and widespread opposition.
Republican lawmakers will be especially targeted. So will conservative media commentators. As AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumpka noted, that definitely includes “the entire cast at Fox News for perpetuating fear and mistruths about Obama’s Health care agenda.” Radio loudmouth Rush Limbaugh also will get lots of well-deserved attention.
Trumpka promised, in an interview with the Huffington Post, that “we are going to continue to mobilize and counter the lies and the myths that they’re trying to create to defeat us. The special interests, the pharmaceutical industry, the health care industry are so vested in the current system they’ll do anything to keep it the way it is.” That is not an exaggeration.
Trumpka and others on labor’s side deplore what another AFL-CIO official rightly calls the “thuggishness” of the opponents of a public health insurance option. That’s certainly been demonstrated at the town hall meetings where opponents scream out angry, outlandish charges, many based on outright lies, that are obviously orchestrated by Republican opponents, profit-lusting insurance companies and other vested interests.
Union members have begun to counter the screamers. They’re showing up at town hall meetings in the hundreds. Many carry signs and wear T-shirts that proclaim a simple but vital message that the opponents are unable or unwilling to accept: “Health Care is a Human Right.”
Dick Meister, a San Francisco writer, has covered labor and political issues for a half-century as a reporter, editor, author and commentator. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.