At its February meeting the AFL-CIO Executive Council responded to the deepening health care crisis by adopting a statement aimed at making health care a priority in the 2004 elections. “We need to turn the 2004 elections into a referendum on whether all Americans should finally be able to get affordable, high-quality care with their right to choose their own doctor.” This action reversed an almost decade-long policy – shared by the Democratic Party – to keep health care “off agenda,” a policy that allowed the right wing’s aggressive pro-privatization and pro-corporate health policies to dominate the national debate.

Bush’s phony Medicare Rx plan

In the last few months, the Bush administration has been scrambling to get a prescription drug benefit through Congress as part of its campaign to “reform” Medicare. The urgency given this matter by the White House shows that the Republicans are very aware how popular a genuine health policy reform agenda would be. They figure they can always “Madison Avenue” their way through the elections (using corporate payoffs) to head off any pro-people health care reform.

AFL-CIO convenes strategy sessions

As part of its campaign, the AFL-CIO Executive Council set up three regional meetings to discuss the crisis. The first meeting, attended by some 75 participants, took place in New York recently. The AFL-CIO has not publicized the meetings on its web site and the meetings are closed to all but union officers and staff.

The prepared agenda said the meetings would discuss collective bargaining approaches to the crisis as well as health policy issues. Guest speakers highlighted the tremendous inflation of health costs that stemmed from the rising price of prescription drugs and hospital care that, according to the AFL-CIO, is the worst in our history. However, the explanation of these increases was left to a speaker from Blue Cross, now a for-profit health care provider, who singled out labor costs as a major contributor to the increase in costs.

Wrong focus on state capitals

If that were not disappointing enough, many participants were even more shocked when Gerald Shea, a special assistant to AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and the AFL-CIO’s point person on health policy, said – and repeated after rather intense questioning– that the focus of the campaign for health care reform should be state capitals rather than Congress.

None of the health care proposals of any of the presidential candidates were discussed. For example, there was no mention of HR-676, the “Medicare for All” bill written by Reps. John Conyers (D-Mich.), Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and several others. The omission of the proposals left the impression that there is no movement on the question of national health care in the halls of Congress or anywhere else in Washington.

Need for national approach

By contrast, the intent of the AFL-CIO’s health policy resolution seemed much bolder – to galvanize labor and mass public sentiment to change Congress and the White House.

Pointing activists to fiscally-strapped state governments to enact health insurance coverage hardly reflects the spirit of the federation’s February resolution. Moreover, the state approach ignores the determination of local union leaders who negotiate contracts to make progress toward national health care reform that will end their bargaining dilemma of choosing between wage gains and maintenance of ever-more costly existing health care benefits.

One must wonder: What will be the impact of such a feeble policy on labor’s chances of unseating the anti-labor Republicans in the Congress and the White House?

The only way to put organized labor back on track is to mobilize union leaders, union members and their coalition partners to do what the original leadership resolution said: Use health care policy as the weapon to kick out the Republicans from Congress and the White House and bring health benefits to everyone under the banner, “Health care is a human right.”

We can do no less.

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