Labor splits over healthcare

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This is the second of two articles on healthcare reform. Part one, entitled Single-payer: a healthy start, appeared in the April-May 2009 issue of the FS.

Everybody acknowledges there is a healthcare crisis in the U.S. Nurses and other medical workers see the problems every day. And this is propelling them into leadership of a movement to do something about it.

Bobbie Reynolds, a homecare worker who rallied for healthcare in Salem, Oregon in April, said, “My clients need me here because they’re too ill to advocate for themselves, and if their healthcare is cut, my healthcare gets cut.”

Stories like hers are forcing debate over the nation’s health-insurance system onto the front burner. And as the issue heats up, organized labor is dividing into two camps: fall into line behind Obama and the Democrats – or fight for something better.

Whether to keep private insurance companies – or replace them and their profits with a universal Medicare system (single-payer) run by government. That is the debate. Winning single-payer means taking on big business, the Democratic Party, and labor officials who do their bidding.

This is no small task, but the severity of the crisis is emboldening a growing movement.

In the workers’ corner.

House Resolution 676, (HR 676) the U.S. National Healthcare Act, proposes a national single-payer health insurance program. (See FS Vol. 30#2 for analysis). HR 676 would cover everyone, and remove deductibles and co-pays. While it doesn’t eliminate pharmaceuticals or other medical industries that contribute to spiraling costs, it does abolish insurers, and is a step in the right direction.

Many unions and labor activists got serious about promoting H.R. 676 in January, when 150 healthcare workers and representatives from labor groups in 31 states formed the Labor Campaign for Single-Payer (LCS-P).

This group recognizes labor’s central role in pushing the healthcare debate. And it provides voice to the thousands of elected union leaders who want to democratically reflect the mass sentiment of their members for single-payer.

HR 676 is endorsed by 521 union bodies in 49 states, 39 state AFL-CIOs and 20 international unions. The list is growing.

Instrumental in building momentum is the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee (CAN/NNOC) and the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA). These unions have pulled no punches in exposing the treachery of union officials such as Service Employees International Union (SEIU) President Andy Stern, or of politicians. For example, California nurses organized an e-mail letter-writing campaign to tell Democrats to “protect the public – not the profit motives of the insurance industry.”

In the bosses’ corner.

Meanwhile, listening to top officials like Stern, one might not even know single-payer is an option. At the White House, officials of major unions and the two major federations – the AFL-CIO and Change to Win – are collaborating with leaders from big business to design a new system. It is not single-payer.

So far, the most likely national plan is modeled after Massachusetts’ system. MNA leader Sandy Eaton calls it an example of what not to do.

In 2006, Massachusetts adopted mandatory health insurance and created a bureaucracy to oversee it, the Commonwealth Health Insurance Connector Board. And because private industry calls the shots the public plan is deteriorating. For example, employers pressured the Connector Board to keep co-pays and deductibles high for the public insurance so that patients would not leave private plans. Undocumented workers and poor families can’t afford insurance even with subsidies, and face $1,000 fines!

Health Care for America Now (HCAN), a pro-Obama, liberal coalition, supports a Massachusetts-style plan. The AFL-CIO, SEIU, and Jobs with Justice are members of HCAN even though all three organizations are on record in support of HR 676.

SEIU also endorsed single-payer at a June 2008 convention, but Stern flagrantly ignores this. Instead, he is teaming up with opponents of single-payer, such as Manufacturers of America.

They are championing HCAN’s idea: a public-private ploy that guarantees continued profits for the likes of Blue Cross. The insurance industry is drooling at the prospect of a scheme that requires universal insurance and features a public component where costly patients can be dumped.

Which side are you on?

Right now, officials like Andy Stern and AFL-CIO President John Sweeney are giving Obama and big business all the cover they need to avoid real healthcare change.

“Labor must lead on this issue,” said Mark Ludzic, founding member of LCS-P. “We have the organization, resources and the discipline to build the kind of muscle necessary to win out against the insurance industry.”

What is needed to turn Ludzic’s words into reality is more rank-and-file heat on top labor leaders: represent the sentiment for single-payer – or step aside!

Sandy Eaton recalls that, “It took 3,000 locals … ignoring AFL President Bill Green’s aversion to ‘the dole’, as he called it, to establish unemployment insurance.”

This fight lays bare the same weaknesses that hobble labor on so many fronts – lack of democracy and addiction to the Democratic Party.

But the crisis in healthcare is not going away. As long as it continues it will propel unionists, like California nurses, to challenge misleaders like Andy Stern. And as more activists say “Enough!” the CEO’s won’t be the only ones shaking in their $1,800 Berluti shoes.

Here is how to help:

  • Bring resolutions on H.R. 676 to unions and labor councils – and push for follow-up. A draft resolution is available at unionsforsinglepayer.org.
  • Join single-payer actions in May. See guaranteedhealthcare4all.org. Or call Mark Dudzic at 201-314-2653. If actions are not planned in your area, contact Labor Campaign for Single-Payer!
  • Freedom Socialist Party Organizer Jordana Sardo of Portland, Ore., can be reached at Jsardo60@hotmail.com.

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