Labor movement pressing for action on health reform

Some in Congress are displaying confusion or timidity on the prospects for health care reform in the wake of this week’s Massachusetts Senate election. But labor movement leaders see a clear and rapid path forward to cementing reform into law.

Both houses of Congress have passed significant health care reform measures. Some unions are saying the House should pass the bill already approved by the Senate and, through a parallel process, move forward with the Senate to make changes through any means available, whether through reconciliation or other pieces of legislation.

The new 59-41 Democratic majority in the Senate, one vote smaller than the majority that existed before the GOP victory in Massachusetts, should not be any type of game changer in finishing the health care reform effort, labor leaders say.

SEIU President Andy Stern said, “There is no turning back, no running away, no reset button.”

Labor’s push to move full speed ahead on health care reform comes as some lawmakers in both parties are trying to use the Scott Brown victory to say that health care reform bills already passed by both houses of Congress should be scratched altogether with a new “bipartisan” piecemeal approach that begins with what “everyone can agree upon.”

The AFL-CIO is calling this approach a cave-in to the insurance companies and noted today that as a result of the Brown victory the prices of insurance company stock on Wall Street are already soaring. (See People’s World columnist Scott Marshall’s thoughts on this.)

The International Labor Communications Association sent a communiqué to unions and pro-labor organizations all over the country this morning reminding them that it would be a defeat to have to start the battle for health care reform all over again. “The House can decide to pass the Senate’s bill unchanged or begin again in committees through a reconciliation process but the main thing is that this is no time to let up,” the statement read.

Only a week ago the AFL-CIO had announced that after negotiations at the White House and with congressional leaders, the labor movement had commitments for major improvements in the Senate version of health care reform. Those included better cost controls, guarantees that everyone would end up with health care plans as good or better than the ones they now have, more choice of doctors and plans, a greater government “watchdog role,” more employer responsibility and a means of eventual re-opening of the public option issue.

These improvements, the federation is now saying, can be achieved with the House and Senate acting together.

But acting together is not so easy, nor is it so clear what that means. Early indications from President Obama seem to suggest he wants members of Congress to “coalesce” around items that everyone can agree on, which could mean more compromises to get at least one Republican vote.

The labor movement is also making it clear that it does not intend to allow the Massachusetts election results to dampen its electoral efforts in the coming 2010 legislative contests.

“Confusion about the Democrats’ health care bill and anxiety about the economy cost the Dems their 60th vote,” said Karen Ackerman, the AFL-CIO’s political director.

Describing Democrat Martha Coakley’s campaign Ackerman said, “She did not make the case to working people and they were not convinced that she cared enough about their issues.” Ackerman said that when there is a strong pro-worker candidate who makes the case, a labor-backed effort to get out the vote and help insure victory is almost always successful. For 2010, she said, “labor plans its biggest election effort ever.”

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John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward and a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.