How one union community took back a town hall on health care

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Here’s a firsthand account from Rosa Blumenfeld, an organizer for the North Shore (Mass.) Labor Council, on how an organized and well-briefed union presence can counter the tactics many health care reform opponents are using to disrupt congressional town hall meetings.

As we arrived at the Chelmsford Town Hall, there were already people lined up to get in. Some were wearing T-shirts with angry tea kettles on them and carrying signs saying things like, “Stop Socialized Medicine” and “Obamacare: It’s to Die For.” As we were warned, they spread out all over the room and constantly disrupted anyone, including Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.), who spoke out against their lies.

Our side had about a dozen people between the North Shore Labor Council and IUE-CWA Local 201 and another dozen from SEIU Local 615. There were many Obama supporters among the crowd of 200 inside the room, and the 200 more waiting to get in.

What worked were simple signs with large print slogans like “Real Health Insurance Reform Now,” and “Stop Insurance Company Greed.” During Tsongas’ opening remarks, we applauded forcefully and many in the room cheered. We even had folks countering the extremist amongst the crowd waiting outside.

One of the most effective points during the Q&A happened when one union woman stood up and said:

I think that everyone in this room can agree that we need to stop unnecessary death. My grandmother got sick and died from breast cancer because her insurance company refused to pay for her treatment. The system isn’t working. People are dying. We need this health insurance reform.

What we were not warned about was the incredible amount of tension that it would create both within the room and within ourselves. Even our most active members that attended were exhausted by the time it was over.

Two things became very clear during the course of this town hall event. First, if we hadn’t been there, they would have eaten the congresswoman alive. These people were constantly shouting and were not interested in discussion or debate. All they wanted was to disrupt things as much as possible. Because of our support, she stood her ground and answered the questions in a way that supported the public health insurance option.

Second, we have to keep our message on the insurance companies whose insatiable (and thus far unchecked) greed got us into this mess in the first place. We cannot focus on the Democrats who support a public option in health care reform or even President Obama. In our meetings with elected officials, it is entirely appropriate to thank them for their support and push them to be stronger advocates, if necessary. But in our public message to counter the extremists, we must keep the focus on corporate greed.