The struggle to produce a just national healthcare system in America will require a unified, aggressive, grassroots campaign-oriented labor movement. The stakes are too high to have it any other way!
The nation’s healthcare crisis is ruining the lives and livelihoods of millions of Americans. The huge pool of uninsured and underinsured families is growing dramatically and, increasingly, members of our unions are joining their numbers.This crisis fundamentally distorts the ability of all workers to survive in today’s predatory economic environment. Union contracts no longer adequately stand between union members and the crisis. Shifting the cost of healthcare to workers under the current profit-driven system is a painful feature of virtually every set of contract negotiations these days. For non-union workers, a voiceless majority of all workers, increasing the burden of costs is a slam-dunk for employers. A publicly supported national healthcare system like those in virtually all other industrialized countries is the only rational answer. On this issue labor needs to speak with one voice.
The depth and impact of this crisis argues for a fully united and strategically aggressive labor movement leading the fight for a comprehensive, universal, and single-payer public policy solution. The inclusion of predatory private sector insurance profiteers can be toxic to the drive for socially just healthcare.
Support Growing Movement For H.R. 676 ‘Medicare for All’
While there is a confusing ambiguity among some in the labor leadership on the Single-Payer “Medicare for All” solution, an ever increasing number of State Labor Federations, Central Labor Councils, Regional Bodies, and Local Unions say the debate is over. Hundreds have joined the march for justice by endorsing H. R. 676, Rep. John Conyers’ Single-Payer Healthcare legislation. This also reflects a solid majority opinion of America’s working people and 65% of the American public at large according to recent public polls.There is a practical as well as ideological reality that is driving the current labor groundswell for a “Medicare for All” system. That reality is grounded in the fact that the current profit-driven, care-denying system has created the crisis. Runaway costs are a continuing price we pay for permitting private insurance companies to manipulate the system.
The new Healthcare for America Now (HCAN) coalition, which some in national labor are promoting includes the notion of a mixed system of public and private insurance for-profit providers, while running TV commercials condemning the role of those same bad-guys. The system needs to be changed completely, not tinkered with by leaving the fox in the chicken coop.
There is much to be excited about with the historic election of Barrack Obama as our next President. But his healthcare proposal, as described during the long campaign, perpetuates many of the current system’s failures. With a significant increase in Democrats in the House and Senate, it is almost certain that some form of national healthcare reform will be on the agenda. The test for the labor movement is whether we can be united and proactive enough to help build the kind of independent grassroots campaign and social movement in support of a Single-Payer System that the politicians cannot ignore?
Over the years, the strategy of trusting a newly elected Democratic Administration to do the right thing on labor’s critical issues has proven to be a failed policy. We should remember the Labor Law Reform legislation of 1977 and President Carter, along with the neutering of Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act.
Fast-forward to President Clinton’s imposition of NAFTA, the cruel Welfare Rights Reform, and his failure to help secure the bar on Striker Replacements. On all these critical questions Labor’s trust was abused and our all-too-willing compromises trashed.
Our experience in the most recent failed attempt to reform the nation’s healthcare policy with the Clintons in the early 1990s, should serve as a grave marker to the danger of playing the Washington insiders game where the corporate and political elite’s marketplace-first agenda prevails. Labor’s issues, particularly when they speak to the welfare of society as a whole, must be aggressively pursued through grassroots political action. Our major public policy successes have come in periods when labor was a fully collective force, aligned with the greater public need, and demonstrating our willingness to challenge even the political leaders we’ve helped to elect.
The fact that a “Medicare for All” public policy has virtually no business support despite its inherent capacity to make American industry and employers more competitive in the global marketplace speaks volumes about the employer’s ideological commitment. Some of those same corporations are looking to the public treasury for bailouts during the current economic crisis although a significant measure of long term relief would be available to them if they helped push through legislation for a Canadian-style, single-payer healthcare system.
Waiting for corporate responsibility to kick in on this question is not an option. These are the same forces which have been waging one-sided class warfare against working people for the last 40 years.
This issue and essential conflict, far above others, has the potential to rebuild the dormant coalition between communities and labor and send a signal to entrenched privilege that their agenda of social inequity and inequality cannot stand. By coordinating our efforts to build dynamic local labor/community support for the specific national universal/single-payer proposal, H.R. 676, we enhance the construction of a full blown social movement which can connect the current threads of activism and lift this struggle beyond wishful thinking. Labor’s inherent organizational capacity and resource base is indispensable to winning this struggle.
Despite the overwhelming public concern on the healthcare question—as with the War in Iraq—massive public sentiment doesn’t mean a lot to most politicians these days. They don’t want to upset the status quo, and instead rely on slick PR and sacks full of corporate money to institutionalize the unresponsiveness of government. We must exercise the option to create the vehicle to bring the full weight of organized labor, all our allies, and ultimately popular opinion to build a dynamic grassroots campaign to get their attention.
How to Move Forward?
What is being proposed is the exploration of a new approach to bring together all within labor who see the need to create a new campaign vehicle to galvanize the growing support for “Medicare for All” legislation within our states and communities, and within our workplaces.We could gain lessons on tackling this question if we reflect on labor’s activity in opposing the war in Iraq, and particularly how the internal labor coalition which became U. S. Labor Against the War (USLAW) was organized. USLAW is a dedicated vehicle which helped channel labor’s campaign against Bush’s war policy. This could be a model for how the hundreds of local, State, and regional labor bodies who are endorsing H.R. 676 could organize a similar vehicle to galvanize our support on the national healthcare issue.
“To protect our members and the lives and livelihoods of working people everywhere, we will advocate, educate and mobilize in the US labor movement” from USLAW Mission Statement
The support for H.R. 676 now being expressed by thousands of elected labor leaders democratically reflects the sentiments of the union membership. All labor should be guided by this reality. We have a critical organizational opportunity to put renewed energy and activism in the struggle for a socially just answer to our healthcare crisis today.