We came together at a time of great peril and great opportunity. On the one hand, access to healthcare and all social programs is under attack, unions and other social movements are fighting for survival and immigrants and minorities are being scapegoated in ways that demand an immediate response. On the other hand, support for Medicare for All has never been greater and people are demanding that their political representatives take action to make it a reality.
In his opening keynote speech, Representative Keith Ellison spoke of this “propitious moment” in which majorities of Americans now support Medicare for All. “We are ready to win” and a smart, strategic and united movement can put us over the top. He also warned of the dangers of bargaining against ourselves. “No concession that you give to these people will be good enough.” So, “why don’t we get out there and fight for what we want?”
“Without Justice There Is No Health. Without Healthcare There Is No Justice.”
Michael Lighty, a Founding Fellow of the Sanders Institute, emphasized how important it is to view the fight for Medicare for All as situated within a broader justice movement. Nearly every battle that working people are engaged in–from union contract fights to communities grappling with the opioid crisis– has a healthcare component. Likewise, the Medicare for All movement must understand the impact that social determinants such as racial disparities and climate change have on healthcare justice.
Medicare for All has emerged as the unifying element of a nascent transformative political movement that is capturing the imagination and hopes of the American people. For political candidates, it has become the signifier for those who want to break with politics as usual. And, as renowned Puerto Rican activist and labor organizer Jose La Luz pointed out, “The only real alternative to right wing populism is left wing populism.”
Perils and Pitfalls.
Participants discussed the two great threats that confront our movement. The first and most immediate is the all out attack on healthcare and public goods coming from the Trump administration and the Republican Congress and bankrolled by a group of right wing billionaires intent on repealing the 20th Century. From Medicaid and Medicare through education and environmental regulation, they seek to undermine or eliminate every policy and program that makes life livable for working class Americans. They have even called for the full privatization of the Postal Service–a cherished public good enshrined in the U.S. Constitution! These attacks require a firm and united response coupled with an understanding that just circling the wagons around our already depleted public programs is a recipe for defeat.
The second and in some ways more pernicious threat is the danger that, as we move closer to victory, our movement will be diverted and co-opted by elements of the political establishment who will propose incremental reforms as an alternative to Medicare for All. These reforms would leave the medical industrial complex intact. By continuing to treat healthcare as a commodity, they would never make healthcare a right for everyone in America. By fetishizing employment-based health coverage, they undermine unions and shortchange all workers. By establishing tiers of coverage, they fail to establish a single standard of care and fail to address the vast inequalities at the core of our healthcare system. Consumer advocate Diane Archer’s conference presentation dissected some of the current proposals and warned of the perils of any reform that allows any role for the commercial health insurance industry.
The Pathway to Victory.
The pathway to victory runs through the 2018 election cycle. Medicare for All advocates must hold politicians at all levels accountable. Nationally, we must demand that candidates commit to support HR 676 in the House and S 1804 in the Senate and to join and actively participate in the Single Payer Caucus led by Representatives Ellison and Jayapal. State and local candidates should be asked to promote the national programs as well as state efforts where viable state level campaigns exist. A breakthrough in one or more states will build momentum for the national movement.
In 2019, we must demand that Congress hold hearings and bring HR 676 to a vote. This will keep the issue in the public eye, put the medical industrial complex on the defensive and force politicians to take a clear stand.
In 2020, Medicare for All must become a central component of a transformative political movement with the capacity to win the White House, Congress and key state races. Our movement must remain mobilized before, during and after the election cycle. We must resist all temptations to bargain against ourselves, which will undoubtedly accelerate the closer we get to victory. Maintaining a powerful independent grassroots movement will help to set the terms of debate and hold our representatives accountable in the post-election period.
Building Grassroots Power.
National Nurses United’s Holly Miller laid out the “big organizing model” that can propel us to victory. We must, she said, “overwhelm establishment politicians with grassroots pressure built through one-on-one conversations with our neighbors.” NNU is committed to leading and supporting this field campaign which could develop a presence in all 50 states.
Becky Bond presented the “Knock Every Door” organizing model which recruits and trains “super volunteers” to develop canvassing plans with the capacity to vastly scale up our grassroots outreach. Bond, a former senior advisor to the Sanders campaign, assured participants that, “People are just waiting to be asked to do something big to win something big.” Many conference attendees signed up to receive additional training in order to support the Nurses’ National Campaign to Win Medicare for All.
Our Movement Must Be Inclusive.
We win when we build a social movement. This means that an injury to one must be seen as an injury to all. Speakers at the conference told of the public health crisis in Puerto Rico, of racial disparities in healthcare, of the exclusion of immigrants from public health programs and of the concerns and vulnerabilities of the disabled community. We have resolved to stand in solidarity with everyone everywhere whose right to healthcare is being denied.
We must view the slogan “Everybody in, nobody out!” as an affirmative operating principle. In particular, we will advocate for the inclusion of long term care and community integration in all single payer Medicare for All legislative proposals.
Unions Have To Step Up.
Unions are facing an existential crisis in the face of the Supreme Court’s Janus Decision and other attacks on the right of workers to organize, bargain and act in solidarity with one another. Jose La Luztold conference attendees that this is no accident. “Unions are the very institution that is designed to be on the frontlines to defend the standard of living of American workers. They are multi-racial organizations. They bring together men and women, different persuasions, different sexual orientations, different national origins. They have the capacity to build a powerful movement for social justice.”
But often the leadership of large national unions falls prey to the urge to “cut a deal” rather than represent the interests of the working class. Especially in times of crisis, this tendency is self-defeating. La Luz challenged the labor movement to embrace bold ideas and bold actions as the key to its survival.
At last October’s AFL-CIO convention, the federation warmly embraced Medicare for All and vowed to work with sponsors of single-payer legislation and support its expeditious passage. Many other national unions have passed resolutions in support of Medicare for All. Yet, with a few notable exceptions, much of the national labor movement has yet to commit the kind of resources and organizing capacity that we need to win this fight. Full and forceful support from a united labor movement can be a game changer. And labor’s embrace of this issue can be an important step in building a revitalized labor movement that can speak on behalf of all working Americans.
The Labor Campaign for Single Payer will redouble our efforts to encourage every level of the labor movement to fully engage with this historic opportunity to make healthcare a right for everyone in America and to mobilize their members to be key participants in the neighbor-to-neighbor conversations which must take place in every working class community in America.
In addition, we will work to ensure that the interests and concerns of healthcare workers are taken into account as we transition into a single-payer Medicare for All system. Many of the current legislative proposals pay only perfunctory attention to these concerns. We will make it a priority to develop model just transition proposals and will demand that affected workers have a seat at the table in any decision that affects their lives and their livelihoods.
Finally, we welcome the distinguished labor leaders who will be joining our National Advisory Board: Bonnie Castillo, Executive Director of National Nurses United; Mark Dimondstein, President, American Postal Workers Union; Larry Hanley, President, Amalgamated Transit Union; Erin McKee, President, South Carolina AFL-CIO; Sara Nelson, President, Association of Flight Attendants-CWA; and Brenda Rodrigues, President, Local 888 SEIU.
This year’s conference will be remembered as a breakthrough moment in the history of the Medicare for All movement. The path ahead is by no means easy. But victory is possible if we work to build capacity, marshal resources and keep our eyes on the prize.