High-quality health care for all Americans moved closer to reality this Labor Day with the 13-million-member AFL-CIO unveiling a major drive to achieve universal health care by 2009.

“The out-of-control cost of health care is crippling American families and American businesses,” AFL-CIO President John Sweeney told reporters at the federation’s annual briefing Aug. 29. “Labor’s campaign is based on the simple premise that no one in America should go without health care, and we’re going to make sure candidates and elected leaders understand that the people will accept nothing less.”

The AFL-CIO launched a drive that it says will result, by 2009, in all Americans being able to benefit from a health insurance system that:

• controls rising and irrational costs,

• provides comprehensive, high-quality health care to all,

• gives every family the opportunity for preventive care,

• preserves the ability to choose doctors,

• has government controlling costs, guaranteeing fairness and efficiency, and eliminating private insurer greed and incompetence,

• lowers employer costs,

• builds on positive elements of programs like Medicare and draws upon experiences that work in other countries.

Some AFL-CIO unions back HR 676, the bill introduced by Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) that would institute single-payer, national health care for all and eliminate the private insurance companies altogether. Asked if he supports HR 676, Sweeney said, “The Conyers bill is in line with our vision for secure, high-quality health care for all Americans.” He added, “Rather than wedding ourselves to one bill at this time, we are building grassroots support for health care reform and plan to work with a worker-friendly president and Congress to enact meaningful reform after the 2008 elections.”

Sweeney declared, “There is no real chance that meaningful health care reform will be enacted while this president is still in office. Rather than fight a losing battle, we are building a 1-million-member mobilization team of activists and working with a broad group of allies to keep comprehensive health care reform at the top of the political agenda in 2008 and to ensure that the real work of fixing the health care sytem actually gets done after the elections.”

After Sweeney made his announcement he introduced workers from across the country who spoke passionately about why health care reform is so crucial.

Mary Florio, a nurse for over 30 years at a hospital in Washington, D.C., and a member of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, came forward first. “People coming into our emergency room are sicker than they have ever been before,” she said. “I just took care of a man who developed pain in his mouth a few weeks ago but didn’t have the money to get treated. By the time he got to me, his face was completely swollen and his eyes were almost totally shut.

“I did my best to take good care of him,” she said, almost in tears, “but it should never have gotten so bad for him. This health care system needs to be fixed now.”

Jean Tome, a nonunion retail worker from Columbus, Ohio, also joined Sweeney at the podium. Tome belongs to Working America, the AFL-CIO’s affiliate for workers at nonunion sites.

“I’m one of 47 million who are without health insurance,” she said. “I recently suffered for weeks with pink eye and strep throat. I stayed home and was docked my wages, but as bad as my throat hurt and blistered I couldn’t go to the doctor. It’s hard to believe, but I couldn’t pay for medical care because I live paycheck-to-paycheck. This is the richest country in the world, isn’t it? What has brought us to this?”

Heather Booth, AFL-CIO national health care campaign director, outlined for reporters how she expects that “1 million union activists will go door to door between now and 2008 and talk to many millions about this health care situation.”

“Make no mistake,” she said, “this is a campaign that labor intends to win.”

One reporter was skeptical about labor’s ability to turn out a million canvassers. “We had more than a quarter of a million going door to door in the 2006 congressional elections,” Sweeney answered, “and this time we are launching the biggest drive in the elections that labor has ever mounted in the history of this country. We are starting a lot earlier than usual and we fully expect to have an army out there at least four times the size of the one we deployed in the last elections.”

In addition to kicking off the federation’s health care drive, Sweeney also discussed the difficult situation workers face this Labor Day and the need for fair trade, good jobs and the freedom to form unions and bargain for a better life. Together, health care and these issues “will form the economic framework for labor’s election agenda,” he said.

jwojcik @pww.org