Labor support grows for single-payer health insurance

Communications Workers of America locals in New York state and Transport Workers Union locals in Florida have endorsed HR 676, single-payer health care legislation introduced by Michigan Rep. John Conyers. One of the Florida locals, TWU Local 561 in Virginia Gardens, is a 900-member group that represents aircraft mechanics at American Airlines. Jorge Rojas, the local vice president, said his union endorsed the bill “because it is the right way to go.”

HR 676 would institute a single-payer health care system in the United States by expanding a greatly improved Medicare system to every resident. The bill would cover every person in the U.S. for all necessary medical care including prescription drugs, hospitalization, surgery, outpatient services, primary and preventive care, emergency services, dental care, mental health services, home health care, physical therapy, rehabilitation (including for substance abuse), vision care, chiropractic services and long-term care. HR 676 ends deductibles and co-payments. It would save billions annually by eliminating the high overhead and profits of the private health insurance industry and HMOs.

HR 676 has 74 co-sponsors in addition to Conyers. The bill has been endorsed by 280 union organizations in 43 states including 77 central labor councils and area labor federations and 19 state AFL-CIOs.

Warning: Popcorn ‘butter’ deemed health hazard

Fourteen Democratic members of Congress have introduced a bill aimed at lessening worker exposure to a deadly chemical used to make butter flavorings.

The chemical, called diacetyl, replicates the flavor of butter in popcorn and other foods.

Diacetyl has caused severe respiratory damage in hundreds of flavor and popcorn factory workers. Unions, lawmakers and occupational health experts have called for putting controls on diacetyl.

Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) proposed the bill last week. She accused the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) of failing to limit worker exposure.

“OSHA has known about this hazard for years and has yet to take the steps necessary to address it,” Woolsey said in a statement. “Since the [Bush] administration has no intention of taking action on its own to protect workers, we will force them to act and hold them accountable on behalf of the workers.”

On April 24, OSHA said it would conduct more inspections of popcorn plants and provide “direction” in controlling diacetyl hazards. It did not, however, write emergency, temporary or permanent rules governing diacetyl.

Occupational health experts consider diacetyl a leading culprit in a rare, irreversible lung disease called bronchiolitis obliterans. People with the disease lose breathing capacity and often must avoid even mildly strenuous activity.

Those in the advanced stages of the disease must carry an oxygen tank or undergo lung transplants.

Introduction of the bill followed an April 24 congressional hearing on the Bush administration’s failure to issue standards. Eric Peoples, a 35-year victim of bronchiolitis obliterans who needs a double lung transplant, testified at the hearing. “I played by the rules. I worked to support my family. This unregulated industry virtually destroyed my life. Don’t let it destroy the lives of others,” Peoples pleaded.

Nursing home workers take to the streets

Midday traffic on Military Road in northwest Washington, D.C., slowed to a crawl June 25 as hundreds of labor activists demonstrated in front of the Ingleside Nursing Home. A purple-clad sea of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) health care activists chanted, marched and danced in the street to demand a contract for 150 Ingleside Nursing Home workers who voted in the union in January 2006.

“I want a union and I want it now,” shouted Christa, an Ingleside worker who joined the rally on her break. Local political leaders — including D.C. Council members Kwame Brown and Ward 4’s Muriel Bowser — joined labor leaders and activists at the demonstration and vowed their support.

“You’re looking at the daughter of a nurse, so I know what you’re fighting for,” said Bowser.

Newly elected SEIU 1199 leader George Gresham said, “If there’s no contract by August 31, Military Road won’t hold us next time,” and Metro Council President Jos Williams promised, “Next time it won’t just be purple; we’ll have all union colors here, because this isn’t just about the workers at Ingleside, it’s about dignity for all workers.”

Trade unionists head to U.S. Social Forum

By bus, plane, van and car, trade unionists from all over the country are attending the first-ever U.S. Social Forum this weekend in Atlanta. Building on the World Social Forums, which have brought together activists from movements across the globe, the trade unionists have joined thousands from every type of struggle for justice who are meeting for five days to share stories and strategies at the U.S. Social Forum. (See story, page 5)

The unions participating include the AFL-CIO, Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers, United Steelworkers, Unite Here, Communications Workers, United Electrical Workers, SEIU, teachers, health care workers and many more.

This Week in Labor is compiled by John Wojcik (jwojcik