PHILADELPHIA – From the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco across the country to this city’s Blue Cross and Blue Shield corporate offices, tens of thousands of union members, community activists and their families marched for “Health Care for All” on June 19.

This was the second National Health Care Day of Action sponsored by Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Jobs with Justice, Americans for Health Care and Rock the Vote. With nearly 44 million people in the U.S. without health care coverage and millions more with limited coverage, rallies in 165 cities and towns demanded that universal, quality, adequate affordable health care to “bridge the gap” be a priority issue in the 2004 presidential election.

In San Francisco, the three-mile trek across the Golden Gate Bridge kicked off the SEIU national convention in that city. The radiant energy of the purple-clad marchers shown through the early morning fog as 10,000 made the bridge walk. Afterwards marchers filled Chrissy Field to hear speakers sharing both personal stories and organizing victories in the struggle for affordable health care. With contingents of union members wearing T-shirts proclaiming “Bush a GO-GO,” the message of the march was clearly aimed at elected officials, and the 2004 presidential candidates in particular.

In Massachusetts, 1,000 marchers crossed the Longfellow Bridge from Cambridge into Boston, where they met up with 100 members of the Massachusetts Senior Action Council. Boston City Council member Felix Arroyo said, “Health care is not a privilege, not a business. It is a right.”

In New York, among those crossing the Brooklyn Bridge to highlight the need to “bridge the gap” were members of SEIU Local 32-BJ who are waging a campaign to win health benefits for 6,000 part-time janitors. About 300,000 New York City residents are uninsured.

In Chicago, speaking to a crowd of 1,000 at the lakefront Lincoln Park, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean emphasized the importance of the struggle for universal health care in this year’s presidential campaign. He reminded voters that this was the original issue that impelled him into his historic grassroots presidential campaign. “Health insurance is a basic tenet of a civilized society,” he said.

“Drop Bush, not bombs!” chanted members of SEIU, AFSCME, the United Steelworkers and the NAACP as they marched across Baltimore’s Hanover Street bridge. Ernie Greco, president of the Baltimore Central Labor Council, told the rally Bush “is the worst president ever on health care.”

Hundreds gathered outside of Philadelphia City Hall to demand “Health Care for All.” They heard some troubling statistics from Fabricio Rodriguez of Philadelphia Jobs With Justice. Over 2.8 million Pennsylvanians have no health care. Seventy-seven percent of them are in working families. In Pennsylvania, 52.9 percent of Latinos and 43.3 percent of African Americans have no health care coverage.

Adult Basic, a health insurance plan for low-income adults funded with Pennsylvania’s tobacco settlement money, closed its enrollment after the fund was raided to plug the state budget deficit. Some 100,000 Pennsylvanians were left stranded on the program’s waiting list, State Rep. Babette Josephs (D-Philadelphia) informed the crowd. However, Blue Cross, a “non-profit” which administers the plan, is sitting on a $3.5 billion surplus. Josephs’ bill in the Legislature, HB 2562, calls for Blue Cross to use part of this surplus to fund Adult Basic for those on the waiting list. “It is a scandal,” said Josephs. “Let the governor know how you feel.”

At the Independence Blue Cross building, Susan Turpening, the uninsured granddaughter of Blue Cross founder E.A. van Steenwyk, reminded marchers of the original purpose of Blue Cross/Blue Shield, which she accused of “operating as a for-profit in every way but name.” Mindy Barbakoff, director of Childspace Co-op, said it would be impossible for the daycare center to continue paying for full benefits for its workers if insurance rates rise 29 percent. This is an ongoing problem for all small businesses and agencies.

Dr. Gene Bishop pointed out that 18,000 Americans died last year because they lacked health care. “I can’t do what I was trained to do in medical school,” he said. Before leaving the Blue Cross building, the crowd shouted, “Shame! Shame!” as a giant inflated rat was delivered to Blue Cross executives.

The author can be reached at Clara Webb, Tim Wheeler, Rahel Malaga, and Roberta Wood contributed to this story.