Labor shifts its health care drive into the streets

Organized groups of union members, responding to right-wing attempts to de-rail the movement for health care reform, are turning out for virtually every health care rally and town hall meeting in the nation, knocking on doors, and are holding their own demonstrations. The efforts are part of a special 30-day mobilization that began August 6.

At a health care rally in Chicago last week members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, carrying their union banners, formed a human chain along Dearborn Street to separate and help protect a large and peaceful crowd of health care activists from a loud and hostile group of right wingers.

Several unions sent members to a town hall gathering in Chemsford, Mass. where they successfully took back a meeting that had been hijacked by right wing extremists. “We kept the focus on corporate greed and we gave strong support to Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., who supports President Obama and real health care reform,” said a union activist after the meeting.

AFSCME is even running a rock-and-roll themed Highway to Health RV tour that is criss-crossing the country, mobilizing the public to contact members of Congress – thanking them if they support real health care reform and pushing them if they do not.

In a telephone interview Richard Trumka, the AFL-CIO’s secretary-treasurer, indicated that one of the major purposes of labor’s stepped up mobilization for health care reform this month is “to counter the right-wing-organized riots that have disrupted congressional town hall meetings with shouts, chants, shoving and disinformation.” At one such meeting the radical right strung up the local congressman in effigy.

Trumka described the right-wing actions against health care reform as riots bought and paid for by special interests, the Republicans and the radical right.

Noting that labor demonstrations are “also passionate, heartfelt and often loud, Trumka said, “This is not what corporate-funded mobs are engaging in when they show up to disrupt meetings.

“Major health care reform is closer than ever to passage,” he declared, “and it is no secret special interests want to weaken or block it. These mobs are not there to participate. As their own strategy memo states, they have been sent by their corporate and lobbyist bank-rollers to disrupt, heckle and block meaningful debate. This is a desperation move.

“Mob rule is not democracy. People have a democratic right to express themselves and our elected leaders have a right to hear from their constituents – not organized thugs whose sole purpose is to shut down the conversation and attempt to scare our leaders into inaction,” Trumka said.

The unions are also taking their fight to the nation’s airwaves. The AFL-CIO, AFSCME and others are funding ads that explain to radio listeners and TV viewers the essential points of health care plans emerging from Congress, what the unions see as the most important parts of those plans and what they see as the positive role of the Obama administration.

The union-backed Americans United for Change is mounting a major offensive against the insurance companies.

“Make no mistake: Cigna and the other private insurance companies created the health care mess – and as long as profits keep going up, they are perfectly happy to wallow in the mess forever,” said Tim McMahon, the groups acting executive director.

The stepped up campaign by the unions was launched Aug. 6 by AFL-CIO President John Sweeney who will retire in mid-September. He said that those campaigning on behalf of the nation’s unions are calling on Congress to “side with workers, and not the insurance companies.”

“Side with health insurers and vote for legislation that continues their control over health care in America, or vote for reform that puts people in charge of their health care,” Sweeney said in a memo to union presidents and state federation and local council leaders. “The question for us is: Will we let them make health care ‘Obama’s Waterloo’ or will we make it the next big step in our march to turn around America?”

A major part of labor’s 30-day drive is taking place online.

Marc Laitin, the AFL-CIO’s online mobilization director, said that the thrust of the federation’s message on the Internet is that “real health care reform must include a quality public health insurance option, a requirement for employers to pay their fair share and no taxation of workers’ existing health care benefits.”

He said that unions are also making an effort to use their online presence to support the president. The message, he said, is that “the plans Obama backs mean health care will be there for you, no matter what. Health care costs will be reduced. There will be an end to insurance company abuses. You can’t be denied coverage because you’re sick or have a pre-existing condition. And you and your doctor will be in charge of your health care decisions.”

The current labor mobilization comes as the nation’s lawmakers, having left the issue of health care hanging when they recessed, now spend the month of August at home.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee had approved a bill that meets the criteria laid out by Laitin, as did both the Education and Labor and the Energy and Commerce Committees in the House.

The key Senate Finance Committee, however, which has jurisdiction over finances, stalled amid reports that it seeks to drop the public option.

jwojcik@pww.org. Sue Webb contributed to this story.