Labor Advocate Online

Three Hopeful Glimmers On A Dark Horizon
by Bill Onasch

Part Three—Meeting the Challenge Conference

This is the third, concluding installment of a series looking at how three events in late April-early May should keep our hopes going in this difficult period. The first dealt with the million-strong March for Women’s Lives; the second with a meeting of the Labor Party Interim National Council. The Meeting the Challenge conference in St Paul completes the trilogy.

Before moving on to the "third glimmer," I promised to deal with the Labor Party Just Health Care campaign in this installment.

Except for war, there is no issue more important to the American working class than health care. The practice of medicine in the U.S. demonstrates better than almost anything else the depths of greed, incompetence, and inhumanity of the American "Free Enterprise" system.

The health care industry pockets about fifteen percent of our Gross Domestic Product. That’s at least double the ratio of other industrialized countries.

In exchange for spending far more than any other country we rank 22nd place among the nations of the world in average lifespan—just behind Costa Rica. Our infant mortality rate is approximately the same as Cuba—a country subject to a more than forty-year long U.S. embargo that has tried to deny them all medicine, medical equipment, and even medical text books. Overall, the World Health Organization rates the U.S. 37th in delivering effective health care to our residents.

This bad situation is getting worse.

The totally uninsured population increased 33 percent during the Clinton administrations and continues to grow. The big majority of those without coverage have jobs or are self-employed.

Nearly all states have slashed Medicaid spending for the poor and disabled.

Prescription drug costs are exploding.

Those fortunate enough to have employer-based health insurance are facing demands from the boss to pay more—a lot more—for premiums, co-pays, and prescription costs.

Our health care crisis is solely the result of the "free market." Access to American medical care is controlled lock, stock, and barrel by corporations out to squeeze as much profit as we can bear.

"Reforms" proposed by Bush and Kerry amount to nothing more than further public subsidy of this unconscionable profit gouging.

No political group has done more to analyze and explain the health care crisis than the Labor Party. And no one has come up with a solution as comprehensive, fair, and practical as the Labor Party’s Just Health Care plan.

Just Health Care would cover everyone in the USA.

It would include all health related services including dental, vision, hearing, and mental.

It would provide all prescription drugs, eye glasses, hearing aids, prosthetic devices.

You would choose your own doctor.

There would never be a charge for office visits, hospital stays, outpatient surgery, therapy, or any service approved by a doctor.

Instead of health care access being controlled by corporations it would be guaranteed by the federal government. Instead of health care costs being doled out by stingy HMOs they would be reimbursed from public funds (single-payer).

There would be no more private health insurance premiums. In collaboration with economists at the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), as well as professionals in Physicians for a National Health Program, and the California Nurses Association, the Labor Party has a come up with a realistic, detailed plan for financing Just Health Care—a plan that would provide the best health care available to everyone for less money than most workers now pay.

Because Just Health Care would eliminate insurance and HMO plans, many thousands of workers would lose jobs. Included in the financing plan is money for a Just Transition for displaced health care industry workers, funds that can be used to retrain and support them until they can find useful jobs elsewhere in the economy.

Fighting For a Place On the Agenda
Just Health Care
sounds reasonable—because it is reasonable—to most workers, a lot of doctors, and even some employers.

But it’s not at the center of the national health care agenda today. The insurance companies, the drug companies, medical equipment manufacturers, and greedy corporate health care providers, like the present system just fine. They are an important component of the ruling class that calls the shots for their twin parties. And, since labor is so tied to one of those twins, we get a very skewed debate.

The April 26 Labor Party Interim National Council (INC) meeting heard some encouraging reports on the Just Health Care campaign.

Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical & Energy workers (PACE) has adopted Just Health Care as a major project to educate their leaders and membership.

Last October a Midwest Just Health Care Conference, co-sponsored by the Midwest Board of UNITE, educated 200 union activists.

Labor Party national organizer Mark Dudzic has been working with the leaders of the Utility Workers union educating and training leaders about Just Health Care.

The New Jersey Industrial Union Council, an early backer of the Labor Party, is setting up a state wide network around the health care issue.

INC member Marilyn Clement reported on a recently formed coalition she is coordinating: Campaign for a National Health Program NOW (CNHPN).This is an effort to mobilize three constituencies—religious, physicians, labor—around a fight for a single-payer health plan. Co-chairs are: Leo Gerard, president, United Steelworkers; Jim Winkler, general secretary of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society; Dr Quentin Young, Physicians for a National Health Program.

They are endorsing HR 676, introduced by John Conyers (D-Mich). The Conyers bill is similar in many respects to Just Health Care although it does not include a just transition program for those displaced from insurance industry related jobs.

CNHPN is organizing a conference/rally in New York, August 31-September1—coinciding with the Republican national convention. Among the speakers will be: Representative Conyers; Cheri Honkala, Kensington Welfare Rights Union; and Elizabeth Benjamin, author of the book The Big Secret.

The Just Health Care campaign has been a useful focus for the Labor Party’s community based bodies as well. The Alachua County (Gainesville) Florida organizing committee had such a good reception to the campaign that they have put a full time local organizer on staff.

On the Picket Lines
In the meantime, while the single-payer movement fights to reclaim a place on the agenda, collective bargaining is dominated by the health care issue.

Perhaps the highest profile fight was the nearly five-month long strike/lockout of UFCW grocery workers in southern California. The AFL-CIO proclaimed this to be a battle to "hold the line on health care." But, despite a truly heroic struggle by tens of thousands on the picket lines, and wide spread sympathy and financial support from the labor movement across the country, the federation’s metaphorical line did not hold. The bosses extracted big take-aways in health care—and much else.

Although the UFCW leadership made the incredible claim of victory in southern California, everyone else recognized it as one of the biggest defeats of recent times. A few weeks later, with the California debacle still fresh in their minds, 18,000 UFCW workers employed by the same chains in the Washington, DC area reluctantly approved similar give-backs in health care.

David Bacon, an often astute labor journalist, wrote an interesting assessment of California—A Heroic Defense and a Cruel System. He writes, "The current [health care] system forces workers and their families to fight their employers, to decide who will pay premiums rising at 15% a year. It virtually guarantees war after labor war." He goes on to argue that only by adopting single-payer, beginning on a state level in California, can this be turned around.

"The grocery strikers deserve thanks for their effort to preserve as much coverage as possible under the present broken system. But broken it is. We should not ask tens of thousands more to make similar sacrifices in its defense."

There are a couple of problems here.

First of all, implementing single-payer piece meal, state by state, is unlikely to work. The threat of massive job relocations, and flight of health care professionals, to other states is palpable. Nearly all states face massive budget deficits and don’t have the fiscal muscle to take over universal health care spending. We need single-payer on a national scale.

And, while the prospects for maintaining affordable, quality health care as an employer provided benefit are grim in most cases—and will likely be paid for with concessions in other areas where benefits are preserved—unions cannot afford to give up this struggle. To do so would be to admit our unions have become powerless in defending workers’ most basic needs. Like all major working class issues we must find ways to fight for health care both on the bargaining level and in the political arena.

Meeting the Challenge
"Our Fight for Health Care: Workplace, Community and National Strategies" was the theme of the 12th annual Meeting the Challenge conference May 1 at Macalester College in St Paul.

These annual events are refreshing and remarkable departures from the norm of labor movement conferences. They have been the project of Macalester history professor, Peter Rachleff, one of a handful of academics who not only try to understand the labor movement but also have become an important component of labor action.

Rachleff first gained national attention by playing a leading role in the P-9 Support Committee that organized impressive solidarity with the epic battle of Hormel workers in Austin, Minnesota during the late Eighties. In the best traditions of Minnesota’s rich history of militant working class struggle, the Hormel fight brought together an informal network of labor activists.

That network lives on and replenishes. Most continue to mobilize strike solidarity efforts. You will also find them educating workers through projects such as the St Paul Labor Speakers Club and Labor History events. Many of them can be seen in the antiwar movement, and the Labor Party, as well. Meeting the Challenge serves as an annual gathering of this clan in addition to always involving some new people too.

One reason health care was chosen as this year’s topic was two recent major strikes in the Twin Cities that centered on this issue: AFSCME Local 3800 , representing 1900 clerical workers at the University of Minnesota and 2300 Metro Transit workers in ATU Local 1005.

Local 3800 is a model for how local unions need to conduct themselves during this difficult period. They are a polar opposite to the "service model" of business unionism that predominates today.

Their employer demanded health care changes that were the equivalent of 14 percent pay cuts. This demand happened to coincide with the completion of a record 1.6 billion dollar fund drive.

The leadership replied, "There’s a Distribution Crisis, Not a Budget Crisis." They distributed t-shirts that read on the front, "Time to share the pain"? while on the back the answer was "All right—it’s your turn. Tax the Rich!" Those mild mannered clericals usually working quietly in the background were about to become quite visible and vocal.

Local 3800 not only defended their wages and benefits; they also attacked the corporatization of the university. They blasted the regent’s grandiose plans for new stadium and field house while jacking up tuition and cutting worker benefits. As a result they found common cause with not only other unions but valuable support among students and the community as well.

Local 3800 found ways to enhance traditional organizing tools with new technology. Their web site and weblogs allowed instant communication with members and the public. They proudly continue to maintain their Internet strike page.

Student supporters also started a special strike support web site, organized moving many classes off campus, and conducted a militant sit-in in administrative offices.

The picket lines were lively, punctuated with spirited rallies, noisily greeted by passers by and frequently visited by well-wishers bearing gifts of food, beverage and money.

The strike lasted two weeks. In the end, Local 3800 did have to agree to some concessions but not nearly as much as had been initially demanded. Far from gloating, the bosses were clearly relieved to see the strike settled. Local 3800 members and the community alike viewed the strike as a victory for the union.

One of the most enthusiastic groups of supporters for the Local 3800 strike were Metro Transit bus drivers. Not long after the university workers settled ATU Local 1005 workers found themselves locked in battle with the Metropolitan Council over similar issues. After the bosses refused to arbitrate the issues in contention, Local 1005 hit the bricks on a six-week strike.

The first to come to 1005's assistance were the now veteran trouble makers from Local 3800. They organized an impressive solidarity rally on campus that set the tone for further mass actions to put pressure on the politicians responsible for transit. Again, the union won the fight for the heart and soul of the community.

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Like the university clericals, the transit workers too had to accept concessions in a deal brokered by the Governor—but they escaped some of the more outrageous give backs demanded by the employer. All in all, it was an honorable fight.

The Meeting the Challenge conference heard panelists from these two struggles relate their experiences. They were proud of what they accomplished and were ready for new battles.

The conference also featured knowledgeable presentations on health care issues presented by long time single-payer advocate, Kip Sullivan, and Labor Party national organizer Mark Dudzic.

All in all, Meeting the Challenge was once again an event both educational and inspirational.

These three glimmers can help show us the way to better times ahead.


Part One—March For Women's Lives

Part Two—Labor Party Interim National Council