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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Dec 1, 2009, 3:07 pm

Stupak: A Massive Headache for Organized Labor

BY Roger Bybee

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Rep. Bart Stupak, center, speaks with Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), left, as counsel John Sopko looks on during a House hearing in June 2008.   (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Michigan Congressman Bart Stupak seems to have a split personality—and it may torpedo the best possibility of passing comprehensive healthcare reform in America's history.

On the one hand, Stupak's website proudly proclaims his support for the House's healthcare reform bill and its limits on unpopular insurer practices, in line with his strong pro-labor voting record. (He has staunchly opposed "free trade" agreements that accelerate the off-shoring of American jobs, and earned a 100% AFL-CIO voting record in 2003.)

Yet at the same time, Stupak is contintuing to inject anti-abortion politics into  healthcare reform efforts, complicating passage of legislation that has advanced further than any other similar effort in U.S. history.


Stupak is demanding inclusion of his draconian anti-abortion amendment —co-authored by Republican Joe Pitts (Pa.)—in any final health reform bill emerging from Congress, a poison pill that could kill the bill by driving away some 40 pro-choice supporters.

Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, cast Stupak as "attempting to ban abortion coverage in the private insurance market." The amendment would bar federal funds from going to subsidize any insurance policy that provides coverage for abortion.

The Stupak-Pitts amendment got attached to the House bill very late in the game as the pro-choice Democratic House leadership (including Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Whip James Clyburn) frantically sought to round up the 218 votes needed for passage.

Stupak conditioned his support and that of some other Democrats (with his claims varying from 10 to 40) on acceptance of his amendment banning the use of federal funds for insurance plans that offer coverage for abortion. "Rep. Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) on Tuesday threatened that he may work with Republicans to torpedo healthcare reform unless he gets a vote to strip abortion-related provisions out of the House bill," The Hill reported. 


Stupak's amendment represents a huge headache for organized labor in his state and nationally, as the union movement sees him presenting roadblocks to a century-old priority for workers. Although Michigan AFL-CIO President Mark Gaffney discusses Stupak's stance in nuanced terms, Michigan labor is clearly concerned about the possibility of Stupak's position dividing healthcare reform advocates in Congress. 

"Our interest is that he vote he vote for final passage of the bill," Gaffney told Working In These Times. "We've had a conversation with him about not gumming up the works. We don't take a position for or against federal funding of abortion. We just expressed the hope that whatever he did, that he not derail it or slow it down." (Gaffney did not disclose Stupak's response.)

As for the the Michigan labor federation applying pressure on Stupak via  mobilizing union members in his distict, Gaffney said that talk of such strategy would be premature.  "We haven't come to that point in the road yet."


The Stupak amendment failed to attract a single Republican vote to the House health reform bill. But it also placed Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), one of labor's fiercest allies and one of the most vociferous critics of "free trade," in a difficult spot.

Although named by The Nation as the "Most Valuable Member of Congress," Kaptur—who represents the socially-conservative Toledo district—voted for the Stupak-Pitts amendment to the disappointment of many supporters. She was one of 39 Democrats to vote for it. (The measure passed on Nov. 7 on a 240 to 194 vote.)

Despite his obstructionist role on healthcare reform, it remains to be seen how Stupak and other Democratic supporters will be held accountable on his dangerous push to load the healthcare reform bill down with an amendment that could sink it entirely.

Daily newspapers, occasionally a source of critical coverage that forces elected officials to step back from extreme positions, seem to be particularly weak in Stupak's district, which includes the thinly-populated northern portion of Michigan and the Upper Peninsula. There is no city larger than 20,000.

However, AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka has been strongly denouncing Democrats who vote like Republicans since his election this fall. Trumka's recent remarks to suggest that AFL-CIO leadership is planning to punish Democrats who undermine its priorities—and Stupak would certainly seem to qualify by endangering long-sought health reform. 

Trumka explained labor's mounting fury at congressmen who cultivate union support while fighting against the general interests of working people:

...these politicians would all have a pet union. And they’d do everything they could for the pet union, and screw everybody else. And then when it came time for elections, they’d call on the pet union to try to help them.

Hopefully we’re getting past that now, where we’re all going to stand together. I can tell you what, members of the AFL-CIO are pretty angry about what’s been happening lately, and I don’t think they’re in the mood. Now, some of them have actually pledged not to give any money until there’s a turnaround. Some of them have erected a few litmus tests and we’ll see if that follows up.

We don’t have that policy right now. But that’s not to say that couldn’t happen. Because our executive council is really upset with what they’re doing.

Given the defection of so many Democrats to conservative positions on healthcare and regulation of the financial industry, Trumka and labor clearly need to decide that some Dems have openly become enemies of working people.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger's work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at

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