If their first two weeks in office are any indication, the people elected Sept. 16 as the new leaders of the AFL-CIO at the federation’s convention in Pittsburgh were serious when they said that they would be different kinds of labor leaders.
Rather than taking their time moving into their Washington offices overlooking the White House, they have been crisscrossing the country, leading marches, speaking at health care rallies, putting pressure on world leaders and even going to the financial fortresses on Wall Street to demand radical reform.
The AFL-CIO held health care marches on Sept. 22 in cities all over the country, demanding health care reform with a strong public option and curbs on the power of the insurance companies.
Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker led a parade through downtown Philadelphia that massed around the headquarters of Cigna, the insurance giant. She said, “The insurers have a chokehold on the United States. America is in a big fight over health care. The American people are on one side. Big insurance is on the other.”
The labor led marches on health care and on financial reform took place as key committees in Congress addressed both issues.
While Holt-Baker was leading marchers in Philadelphia the Senate Finance Committee was dragging itself through the 564 GOP sponsored amendments to a bill that the AFL-CIO had already characterized as weak and unacceptable. A progressive member of the committee, Jay Rockefeller, D-W. Va., said that the GOP, on behalf of insurers, was trying to “slow-walk” health care reform to death.
Richard Trumka, the AFL-CIO’s newly elected president, led the charge on Wall Street with a march and rally, also on Sept. 22. His move was timed to coincide with discussions in the House Financial Services Committee, which, on the day of the Wall Street demonstration, was near agreement on comprehensive financial reform. The committee’s bill, if passed by the full Congress, would regulate not just bankers, but the brokers, hedge fund dealers, derivative traders and other financiers responsible for massive unemployment and home foreclosures.
In her attacks against insurance companies Holt Baker accused them of “buying and paying for the radical right protests and near riots against health care reform that disrupted congressional town hall meetings this summer.” At one of the tea bagger actions she described, a St. Louis union member suffered a broken shoulder after being beaten by right-wing thugs.
“All across America today people have something to say about big insurance – we’re sick of it,” Holt-Baker said. “We’re sick of insurance companies telling doctors what they can and can’t do. That has to stop. “We’re sick of our family members and friends getting denied coverage because they were once sick. That has to stop. We’re sick of insurance company policies that reward denying claims. That has to stop.
“And we’re sick of their using our premium money to work against health care reform We’re sick of them telling their employees to join the Town Hall screamers against health care reform. That has to stop,” she said.
Only 48 hours after Holt-Baker’s Sept. 22 speech the AFL-CIO fired off letters to the state insurance commissioners in Indiana, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New York, demanding investigations of whether the insurance companies in those states were increasing premiums in order to cover the costs of their lobbying campaigns against health care reform. “The health care industry’s lobbying expenditures clearly impacted consumers’ health care costs,” Trumka wrote. “We believe that insurer lobbying expenses led to excessive rate hikes.”
At some of the health care demonstrations, including one at the Blue Cross Blue Shield headquarters in Portland, Ore., the trade unionists demanded abolition of the health insurance companies altogether, calling for a single-payer government run health care system.
At its convention in Pittsburgh the AFL-CIO approved two health care resolutions. One backed single payer insurance and the other called, in the meantime, for support for versions of the reform bill that would create a strong public option and would avoid taxing workers who currently have plans paid by their employers.
The AFL-CIO demonstrations on Wall Street were particularly dramatic. Standing outside the New York Stock Exchange, Trumka, blamed the economic crash on “the speculators who are inside.” He described them as “the real beast” and said “they must be reigned in.” He called for creation of a strong consumer protection agency. The Obama administration has called for the creation of such an agency and creation of such a body is included in the House Committee bill.
Trumka said: “I’ve got a message for Citibank and AIG and every other financial institution getting rich at the expense of working families trying to recover from this recession: If you lock out families wanting homes and businesses desperately needing capital to create new jobs and opportunities for families, if you take money from U.S. taxpayers and spend it on more speculation instead of investing it in creating jobs, if you lard your executives with bonuses and largesse while you’re squeezing families out of their homes with unfair lending, we’re going to fight you.
“We’re going to tell the truth about you’re doing. And we’re advocating for new regulations to make sure the financial sector is the servant to the real economy and not its master. The bankers and brokers caused this mess, while workers are paying the price,” Trumka declared
“We are here to demand more accountability today from our financial system, from Wall Street, from the ‘Masters of the Universe’ who speculate in phony instruments rather than invest in the real economy. And we’re here to support President Obama’s call here on Wall Street for tough new regulations to keep our economy safe from speculators and the apostles of greed,” Trumka said.