On the Offensive, Trumka, Progressive Dems Revive Healthcare Battle

Roger Bybee

AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka (center) with President Barack Obama.

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It’s been a cruel, cruel summer for pro-labor progressives — until the last couple days when AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka and 60 House Democrats came out swinging for a Medicare-based public option in any healthcare reform plan.

The summer started bright with promise: a popular Democratic president elected on a mandate for healthcare reform, a filibuster-proof 60-vote majority in the Senate, and an overwhelming majority in the House.

But soon, labor law reform was stripped of important features like card-check” recognition, in large part because of conservative, pro-corporate Democrats.

Then these conservative Democrats — the Blue Dogs in the House, the Max Baucus/​Evan Bayh-types in the Senate — turned their attention to chewing up health reform, converting some key provisions into major gifts to insurers and Big Pharma:

  • The most rational and popular (67% of general public; 59% of doctors) solution, Medicare for All (aka single payer”) was immediately ruled off the table.”
  • Lacking a clear sense of Obama’s key objectives for reform, reform supporters anxiously sat on their hands, waiting for something to do. Meanwhile, intimidating mobs sponsored by wealthy Rightists jammed town hall meetings, creating the false yet indelible image in the media that grassroots” Americans were turning against government intervention.
  • Universal” coverage has been translated into a mandate for individuals to buy over-priced, loophole-ridden private health insurance. Instead of a basic human right for all Americans, we are now looking at an unreliable and onerous burden imposed on families that is currently unraveling in Massachusetts’ reform.” The ultimate effect is more insurance customers and higher profits, not guaranteed coverage for all.
  • The Democrats handed Big Pharma huge giveaways in the form of bans on government-negotiated prices and imported low-cost drugs from Canada.
  • Even with numerous GOP congresspeople knowingly spreading the false and absurd pull-the-plug-on-Grandma” lie, Max Baucus and some Obama spokesmen continue to speak of seeking bi-partisan backing for reform.

But the latest insult to labor and progressives — signals that the Medicare-based public option” was about to be dropped — proved to be the tipping point.

Most striking was the articulate and forceful response of Trumka, the all-but-certain incoming president of the AFL-CIO, who firmly declared that labor would not support Democrats who opposed the public option and backed regressive funding of health coverage.

Driving home virtually the same message, 60 Democratic members of the House declared in a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius that they would not vote for any health reform that did not contain a strong, Medicare-based public option.

In particular, the emerging Senate Finance Committee plan — which seems unlikely to contain a public option and could end up taxing pricey health care packages — seems almost guaranteed to incite the unions,” reported Sam Stein of Huffington Post.

We’ll oppose it,” Trumka said, when asked about any bill that ends the tax exemption for employer coverage. It’s actually a stupid concept because if you tax those that have it to pay for those that don’t, eventually those that have [benefits] won’t. Then who do you ultimately tax?”

While the Obama administration and conservative Dems have been busy accommodating insurers and Big Pharma, Trumka made it clear that there was a fundamental divide on the issue, and labor is going to actively fight the forces seeking to amass more profits from reform. The special interests, the pharmaceutical industry, the health care industry are so vested in the current system they’ll so anything to keep it this way and we have a job to do there,” he told Huffington Post.

We’re also going to keep politicians strong so that they don’t listen to the moneymen and continue to erode away or negotiate away a program [so much that it] ultimately becomes useless,” Trumka vowed. Right now, without a public option, [reform] becomes useless. It won’t change the current system.”

Trumka’s decision to draw a line in the sand comes at a crucial moment for genuine reformers to regain control of the debate. It’s also a very promising sign that labor may be reviving itself.

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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 zcom​mu​ni​ca​tions​.org/​z​s​p​a​c​e​/​r​o​g​e​r​d​bybee.
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