“The question isn’t whether we can afford to have universal, single-payer health care; the question is, can we afford not to?” reads the first resolution passed by the United Auto Workers convention this week.

The nation’s health care crisis, said union President Ron Gettelfinger, is not something that can be “fixed” at the bargaining table. A longtime supporter of single-payer health care, the UAW took a step forward in pointing to specific legislation that can make that a reality.

“Medicare for All” or HR 676, if passed, would guarantee health coverage to every person in the U.S. It expands upon and upgrades the Medicare system and would include a real prescription drug program, hospitalization, surgical, outpatient services, primary and preventive care, emergency services, dental, mental health, home health, physical therapy, rehabilitation (including for substance abuse), vision care, chiropractic and long-term care.

The UAW endorsement is the latest in a tide of labor-based support for the bill. To date, 143 labor organizations, including 25 central labor councils, have gone on record in support of the bill. Not a week goes by without several more locals and retiree groups joining the list.

As employers, large and small, move to push skyrocketing health care costs onto workers and retirees, the toll has been taken on wages, pensions and other benefits. U.S. autoworkers have been blamed for being “uncompetitive” because health care costs add $1,500 to the price of every new vehicle.

Some UAW delegates demanded that the big corporations who cry crocodile tears over rising health care costs should be called on to lean on their Republican allies in Congress to support legislation like HR 676, which would rein in those costs. The union points out that the program would save the nation billions every year by eliminating the high overhead and profits of the private health insurance industry and HMOs.

HR 676, introduced by Michigan Democrat Rep. John Conyers, now has 70 co-sponsors in the House of Representatives. Labor’s snowballing support and its impressive grassroots response make it possible for HR 676 to be a focal point for the 2006 congressional races.