In February I participated in the national strategy conference of the Labor Campaign for Single Payer Healthcare. Over 200 labor activists and allies gathered in Chicago to spend three days strategizing over the future of real healthcare reform in the new age of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
It is clear that the ACA will present serious problems to union healthcare plans and that a Single Payer health plan is needed to curb the rising costs of insurance-based healthcare. Despite the wonderful efforts of leaders like Nancy Pelosi, the compromises made in the US Senate ultimately diminished the accomplishments of the legislation. Though many more will be entitled to Medicare and preconditions can no longer deny coverage, the system essentially will not change. Costs will continue to rise.
We heard from Karen Lewis, President of AFT Local 1, who shared some of the lessons of the successful Chicago teachers’ strike and how two years of community organizing – school by school, neighborhood by neighborhood, with students and parents – built overwhelming support to fight against the attacks by the free market corporatos who, supported by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, want to ignore the voice of workers, the teachers, in order to privatize the schools. (kinda like healthcare…)
We were honored to have Congressman John Conyers from Detroit spend Saturday with us. This long-time progressive leader is the sponsor of House Bill 676, the Single Payer model legislation that labor supports. And since it was January I was reminded that Congressman Conyers should also be remembered as the leading voice to honor Martin Luther King with a national holiday.
I was pleased to see a strong contingent of leaders from the California Nurses Association and other members of the National Nurses Union who are putting serious resources into staffing organizing committees and legislative researchers to keep this campaign above water in a year where many other economic justice priorities are emerging.
As a member of the national board for Single Payer I was asked to speak from the labor perspective about moving this position forward and convener, Mark Dudzic, asked me to be a little provocative.
Here is a summary of my remarks:
2013 is the worst time in the last eight years to get traction for single payer legislation or electoral support. Even though we have maintained great healthcare coalitions (in CA for example we have CNA, our Labor Council, Health Access, ACORN/ACCE, Chinese Progressive Association, California Alliance for Retired Americans, SEIU, Unite-Here, and many progressive democratic legislators both local and statewide), most researchers in progressive unions, community and nonprofit organizations are spending more time attending to the effects of the ACA and the exchanges and how the ACA will impact our members. And it’s scary.
In California State Senators Sheila Kuhl from Los Angeles and Mark Leno from San Francisco (my state senator) have been the torch carriers of the perennial SB 810, the single payer bill that historically passed both Sacramento legislative chambers only to be vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger. And the legislation didn’t even have a revenue component attached to it. Last year it didn’t pass the Senate.
In San Francisco – where we passed the closest thing to universal health care of any place in the nation with the public option that Obama and Pelosi couldn’t quite win even when we had a Democratic majority and won our ERISA suit and challenges from the San Francisco business community all the way to the US Supreme Court – our weak-kneed “liberal” Board of Supervisors, under pressure from the Chamber of Commerce, voted to weaken the law by allowing the expansion of healthcare savings accounts, which employers can cunningly offer without having to even pay into any account for their employees in lieu of buying healthcare.
In this political mess we are not focused on healthcare legislation.
People are concerned about taxation (despite the false fiscal cliff bullshit that we are fighting) in California and Prop 13, where the split roll debate is about to get some traction. With a supermajority in both legislative houses and a tentative but observant Jerry Brown about to oversee their proceedings, we might be able to move. We did pass a major tax increase for education (Prop 30) after a difficult and vigorous campaign that was coupled with Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio-type labor attacks which we repelled. No on 32. Big defensive victory.
Anti-war campaigns as well as the foreclosure fights seem to be taking more root as the Occupy Movement we supported and became partners with has morphed from street into more traditional issue-oriented protest actions.
I am not suggesting that we are anywhere close to hanging our hats on success for any of these progressive issues, but that we are trying to get our members and friends to wrap their attention around them all.
Point: The healthcare crossroads we are trying to cross doesn’t have a majority of us organizers waking up in a cold sweat over single payer. And since I am here on behalf of our Labor Council and the national organizing committee, I can only say “we should be.” And we will. If we strategize I believe that 2016 is the year to strike. That’s another organizing discussion.
In the Bay Area we will continue to build our committee and I will be encouraging other Labor Councils and State Federations of Labor, along with my counterpart in DC, Josh Williams, one of the chairs of this conference, to put this issue on the agenda of every Labor Council in America.