The AFL-CIO is pushing for passage in 2009 of universal, affordable national health care, and is working to build unity among workers, community groups and even businesses supportive of the idea.

The federation is fighting for several bottom line principles rather than a particular plan. These include coverage that is universal, a system that involves payments by businesses, governments and workers, the right to choose one’s own doctor, and government enforced cost controls. A key additional principle is inclusion of a government-run option, like Medicare, for all who choose it. This option would guarantee coverage for those whose employers would not or could not provide it and would help keep costs below what private insurers charge.

“Health care costs are killing working people and they’re killing corporations as well,” said federation President John Sweeney. He, along with Executive Vice President Arlene Holt-Baker and health care campaign director Heather Booth, outlined the guiding principles of the federation’s campaign at a March 25 conference call to 400 health care activists.

During the conference the federation released results of its health care survey of 26,419 workers nationwide, half of whom were union members and all of whom now have employment-based health insurance.

More than 95 percent feared losing their coverage in the future and the same percentage said the health care system needs to be fundamentally rebuilt. Despite their coverage, one-third reported skipping medical appointments or not taking prescribed medications because of costs.

“These are the people you would expect to have positive experiences with America’s health care system, the lucky ones, except they’re not,” Sweeney said, adding, “They think health care is one of today’s most important issues, and they are ready to vote on it.”

Sweeney said the “lion’s share of the cost” of a new system must be paid by the government and employers, not by workers.

Responding to questions, Booth said “one reasonable approach” could be government-run single-payer health insurance embodied in HR 676, the bill authored by veteran Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.).

“The Conyers bill is in line with our core principles,” Booth said, and she quoted a statement by Conyers at a recent AFL-CIO luncheon where he declared that “the first priority is to elect a president and a Congress this year committed to health care reform — and then hash out the details next year.”

Sweeney said that some businesses are beginning to change their minds about the need for health care overhaul. He reported that at a recent meeting leaders of several Fortune 500 firms, including IBM, General Electric and Bristol-Myers-Squibb, had told him that drastic health care reform was needed in the U.S. for them to stay competitive. “Their own self-interest can move them in the right direction,” Holt-Baker added.

The federation is asking that local central labor councils make health care the topic of their April meetings. It is also planning “labor to neighbor walks” on health care involving distribution of educational materials and printed comments on the stands of the presidential candidates. Some 112 walks are currently scheduled.

“Obama and Clinton differ on details,” Booth said, “but the big gap is between their plans and McCain’s. While the two Democrats offer variations on universal coverage, with a government-run component, McCain offers a continuation of the failed health care policies of Bush.

“We didn’t come at this from a partisan point of view,” Booth said, “But McCain would tax individuals’ health care benefits, which would only drive many more people out of coverage, beyond the current 47 million uninsured and many more under-insured.”

Sweeney said labor has initiated a health care drive because “this is something that has to continue through the November election and well beyond. The vested interests — health insurers and drug companies ― will pump millions of dollars into their own drive to stop universal coverage. We must be able to respond.”