Obama Heads to Labor Day Rally as Union Pressure on Public Option Mounts

Art Levine

As President Obama goes to a Cincinnatti Labor Day rally today expected to draw thousands, the labor movement, especially presumptive incoming AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, is increasingly drawing a line in the sand over the public option in health reform.

Meanwhile, SEIU is joining with Health Care for America Now (a progressive coalition that includes the AFL-CIO), in promoting Labor Day-related health care events that urge citizens to pressure legislators to Send Them Back to Congress” to pass reform, with a strong emphasis on retaining the public option.

Unfortunately for progressives, administration officials continued on Sunday’s talk shows sending mixed signals on their support for the measure: backing it as important, but not signalling they’re willing to fight for it as indispensable.

Meanwhile, over the last few weeks, Trumka has set off alarm bells among some in Washington’s punditocracy because of strong statements indicating that Democrats who won’t back a public option can’t count on future labor support – and that the AFL-CIO won’t back a bill without a strong public option.

That’s a stance that differs in tone, if not necessarily in substance, from the administration. As Reuters reported:

U.S. President Barack Obamas top aides said on Sunday he still wants a government insurance option in healthcare legislation but they left room for a compromise that could disappoint his liberal backers.

Ahead of a major Obama healthcare speech on Wednesday night, the advisers sought to portray a sense of momentum behind an overhaul of the $2.5 trillion U.S. healthcare system after a tumultuous summer of debate during which Obama lost ground and Republicans rallied opposition.

Obama, speaking to a joint session of Congress, will lay out specifics of what he supports to try to regain control of the healthcare issue and gain passage of a plan this year.

The union movement’s role is becoming even more critical to passing genuine health care reform. Today’s Washington Post has a major profile on Trumka, expected to be selected as president at the upcoming AFL-CIO convention, that underscores his tough stance on reform: AFL-CIO’s Richard Trumka Aims to Hold That Line on Health Care.” As the article points out:

Trumka wants to take a far more aggressive stance against anyone who stands in the federation’s way, and that includes Democrats who beg for labor’s support only to betray it on issues like health-care reform.

Monday, he and the man he is succeeding, John Sweeney, will meet with President Obama at a Labor Day picnic in Cincinnati. In what could be a moment of high tension, they will have a chance to argue that, after being elected in part because the AFL-CIO’s persuaded its more skeptical members to vote for him, Obama should not disappoint it by settling for half measures.

The labor movement is the best vehicle out there to make broad social change that creates an America where everyone gets a chance to win once in a while, not just the people on Wall Street but every American out there,” Trumka said in his office overlooking Lafayette Park and the White House. It’s a big, big task, it’s a big, big fight, and all the people that are arrayed against us are going to try to prevent us from changing anything. But with every fiber of my body I look forward to that fight.”

Yet, as the New York Times reported this weekend, there’s also mounting frustration at the pace of reform being pushed by the White House, while labor leaders also welcome the White House’s support for progressive change:

Mr. Obama has delayed a push for the unions’ No. 1 legislative priority, a measure to make it easier for workers to organize. He faces potential conflict with unions on trade, and on how fast to push for immigration reform. And on health care, friction between labor and the White House is suddenly spilling out into the open.

In response, Mr. Obama is renewing his courtship of the labor movement, whose members worked as foot soldiers in his campaign and spent August doggedly defending his health plan at town-hall-style meetings across the country. On Monday, the president will mark Labor Day by speaking at an A.F.L.-C.I.O. picnic in Cincinnati. During his visit, he is expected to name Ron Bloom, who heads the president’s automotive task force, to a second role in the administration as manufacturing czar. The next week, Mr. Obama will address the A.F.L.-C.I.O. convention in Pittsburgh.

He gets an A for effort, and an incomplete for results,” the incoming president of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., Richard L. Trumka.

While labor leaders, including the current A.F.L.-C.I.O. president, John J. Sweeney, say they remain extremely supportive of the president — especially his handling of the economic crisis — Mr. Trumka set off an uproar last week when he warned that unions would not support a health care bill that lacks a government-backed insurance plan. It was a shot across the bow to the White House, which is weighing whether to compromise on the so-called public option.

Another top union leader, Gerald W. McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, cautioned that if Mr. Obama abandons the public option, it will be harder to gin our people up on other issues.”

Yet at today’s Labor Day rally, though, President Obama will be reminded of union members’ support for him and his agenda – and they’ll add their voice to the rising calls to hold firm on the public option.

UPDATE: President Obama gave a passionate speech on behalf of health care reform – even if he didn’t spell out details about a pubic option – and praised labor’s role in social reform over the decades. You can see his speech here: 

Art Levine, a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, has written for Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Slate​.com, Salon​.com and numerous other publications.
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