Labor voices for single payer

February 19, 2010

Union members who support single-payer health care have a message for Barack Obama: Ditch the compromised health care legislation that congressional Democrats cooked up and take another look at a Medicare-for-all system.

When Obama used his State of the Union address to tell people to "let him know" if there's a better approach that "will bring down premiums, bring down the deficit, cover the uninsured, strengthen Medicare and stop insurance company abuses," the Labor Campaign for Single Payer (LCSP), a network of local and statewide union leaders, responded with a letter stating that single-payer system "would be far more cost effective than any of the proposed current reforms based on the continuation of for-profit, market-based insurance."

The LCSP, which was founded in January 2009, scored a major success at last fall's AFL-CIO convention, where extensive grassroots organizing paid off in the passage of a resolution putting the labor federation on record as supporting single-payer. Since then, however, AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka has backed the White House's business-friendly approach to health care legislation. Trumka agreed to a proposal that would partially exempt union members from the proposed tax on so-called "Cadillac" health plans in exchange for labor's support for current legislation in Congress.

Jerry Tucker, a former member of the United Auto Workers International Executive Board, is a founding member of the LCSP and serves on its steering committee. He spoke with Lee Sustar about new efforts by labor supporters of single-payer health care.

HOW DID the Labor Campaign for Single Payer come together?

WE AS a campaign have always felt that our mission was very simple. We didn't want to engage in any ping-pong around something less than single payer. Our effort was always to be the left pole in this whole discussion. And 73 different resolutions came into the AFL-CIO convention in favor of single payer.

We sent our letter to Obama because we want the White House to know that a labor campaign for single payer does exist. The letter represents the thinking of a large, diverse and responsibly elected portion of the labor movement.

We didn't want to nickel and dime the pieces of the current legislation, because we, like many major organizations, such as Physicians for a National Health Program, Progressive Democrats of America and others, had resolved that our concern was forcing single payer to the forefront in the public and congressional debate.

We in the labor movement have to take some responsibility for the fact that we were not speaking with one voice when this debate began. All responsible labor leaders know that you don't modify your position against your own position--in other words, you don't negotiate against yourself.

Seattle unions marching for health care reform
Seattle unions marching for health care reform (Neil Parekh)

Perhaps because of a willingness to cede leadership to a newly elected administration, some labor leaders didn't remember that lesson, and participated in the whittling down of our basic goals before the actual debate had begun.

This is reminiscent of how we entered the debate on labor reform on 1977-78 [during Democrat Jimmy Carter's presidency] and lost. And its reminiscent in some ways of how we let the Clinton administration get away with NAFTA. It's reminiscent also of how we let the striker replacement issue [also under Clinton] get past us us. There was too much willingness to trust the respective administrations in these cases, and the Democratic Party's capacity to engage in productive activities that will benefit the working class. And again, we've gotten into that trap.

Eric Foner has written that the Obama administration more resembles that of Jimmy Carter than the other presidents that people have mentioned, like Roosevelt or Lincoln. I can attest to the fact that this is possible. I saw the Carter administration close up--I was assigned to the Washington office of the UAW in those days, and part of my responsibility was to try to prod the administration as well as members of Congress to follow up on labor's agenda.

You may recall that there was significant part of the labor movement, which formed something called the Labor Clearinghouse, that supported Carter over Mo Udall, who I supported at the time. When Carter won the nomination, it was clear--and he stated it--that he could not have done it without the benefit of the work of those unions. So it was expected by many labor leaders at that time that Carter would deliver, and that we had some overdue bills. Among them was health care.

Health care had been the biggest fight on the platform committee of the Democratic Party. And the Carter administration responded in a way that looks much like the Obama administration. It worked diligently to make sure it wasn't tied down to single payer, which is what the Kennedy wing of the party was advocating and what the progressive side of the unions was pushing. Their argument was: "Don't tie our hands."

The Carter administration also committed itself to labor law reform and passing the Humphrey-Hawkins Act for full employment. It eviscerated health care enough that it was never held responsible for the fact that health care didn't move in either house of Congress at that time.

But certainly its position was critical on labor law reform, which was lost by two votes of Democrats who had previously supported us, and who we believed the White House could have kept in line. On Humphrey-Hawkins, they were quiescent when it was watered down. So of the three big things progressive labor had supported Carter on, we lost on all three.

Fast forward to the early days of the Obama administration. No one would deny that the Employee Free Choice Act [proposed legislation to make it easier to join a union) is an important issue. But in terms of its overall impact on society at large, it pales beside a health care program. Yet going into earliest part of the administration, it wasn't recognized by labor that this would be the case.

I think the formation of the Labor Campaign for Single Payer helped to create a certain equality between those two issues, or at least an equality of purpose. And when the administration pushed the health care even further, though incorrectly in our opinion, it came into the forefront of public debate.

But the labor movement should have been saying: "Social insurance of this type would be a huge benefit to the entire working class and all Americans--and without question, this should be our primary objective." Not far behind that is strengthening the ability to redistribute wealth through union organizing. Those should have been the way the priorities were outlined.

Back in September 2008, I wrote an article called, "Getting labor's national health care act together," which was precipitous toward the creation of the labor campaign. The idea was to remind the labor movement that the only way it was going to make any progress was through unification and solidarity around principled issues.

Well, obviously, that didn't happen. The usual dynamic of seeking access over principle was in play.

HOW DO you shift the debate now?

NO ONE can realistically expect that health care legislation--having tripped over as many logs and fallen into as many traps as it has--is going to be suddenly converted or miraculously rescued, and that out of this, in a few days, weeks or months, a single-payer solution will suddenly emerge. That's particularly unrealistic under the circumstances.

However, for those in the labor movement who have been consistent in their advocacy of single payer, we have an obligation to stay there and continue to be a driving force at the grassroots.

Labor has been catching hell at the bargaining table over health care for the better part of 30 years. The story is never fully told, given that working class issues and questions are never communicated in the media. Maybe you hear about a busted set of negotiations where a strike or lockout has occurred, and it's mentioned in passing that health care is an issue.

The fact of the matter is that in the struggles over the last 30 years, the dominant issue has been shifting costs of health care to workers. The conception that existed in the 1950s and 1960s that in manufacturing, for example, health care would be relatively fully paid for by employers has turned instead into a cash transfer to employers.

We haven't had a real increase in waged work since 1972. A dominant factor is that health care has been the battleground and has soaked up all of that wealth that should have gone into the pockets of the workers.

As a result, our collective bargaining and industrial relations have been a shambles for a long time. That's been kept a secret, quite often by labor leaders who don't want to acknowledge it. But it is epidemic. Health care is one of the reasons that wealth has been distributed so disparately in this country.

It's what we call at the bargaining table the cash transfer--from real wages to paying for health care as the costs are shifted to workers. That's a huge portion of gross domestic product. If workers had had a little of those resources to consume, we might find that the distribution of privilege and culture would look different today, too.

Is any of the current legislative effort, if any of it passes, going to alleviate that? Not hardly. That's true of either version, the House's or Senate's, given the fact that both allow the insurance industry to maintain its dominant role in price setting for health care in this country.

At the bargaining table, I think things would get worse under the new legislation. At the minimum, it would stay bad. In some cases, it will give employers an option to dump health care altogether.

The raging battles will not stop. I don't care what labor people you talk to, public sector or private. Ask them what is the stumbling block in negotiations, and health care always comes out at the top. I've asked people at central labor council after central labor council about the main labor struggle in their communities, and it's always health care.

The current legislation won't make collective bargaining any better. It may make it more fractious. But a single payer program will, in a very short period of time, remove health care from the bargaining table almost altogether.

I don't think a lot of labor leaders today have come to appreciate this. I think maybe the bargainers, the business agents and the shop stewards around the country could grasp this a bit quicker than the guys who spend time being bureaucrats at the top of the heap. It's been a long time since they've sat at the bargaining table and engaged in some dynamic counterpunching.

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