LOS ANGELES - At the labor federation's convention here last week, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said that labor's attempt to reach out to every worker in the country was going to require effort on the part of unions because, in the process of opening up, "not everyone is going to agree on everything."
If the way the labor movement handled a disagreement that surfaced at the convention last week on the Affordable Health Care Act is any indication, then labor may be off to a good start on its intended path of building unity among groups that agree on the big picture but disagree on specifics.
At the beginning of the AFL-CIO convention last week, there were several unions so angry about certain parts of the health care law that they were saying it should be repealed altogether. They were upset, for example, that employers can take advantage of parts of the law by cutting work hours thus avoiding health care responsibility for their employees altogether.
In the end, the fact that the law will provide health care to 35 million who don't have it now and the fact that everyone at the AFL-CIO convention wanted to make compromise possible, a knock-down, drag-out fight was avoided.
Rather than ditch the law altogether, a law that was strongly supported by organized labor, the convention ended up passing a resolution that specifies the problems in the new law, puts the administration on notice that the problems should be fixed and committs labor to working for improvements up to and including a single-payer health insurance system like Medicare for all.
The disagreement on health care was clearly the most open controversy that surfaced at the AFL-CIO convention last week. Other disagreements were worked out before they came to the floor.
One of the disagreements over which a floor fight was avoided was the controversy around the building trades unions questioning of the role and power of non-union groups - particularly environmentalists - in labor's councils. The other contoversy worked out before coming to the floort was the one reflected in the International Longshore Workers Union decision to leave the AFL-CIO. That decision reflects, in part. the ILWU's belief that it has been treated unfairly by other unions encroaching on its "territory." Other unions too have said that they have been the victims of "raids" whereby another union tries to sign up people who might otherwise belong in their union. Rather than conduct an open floor fight the parties involved agreed to referral of the issues to the AFL-CIO's executive council with a Feb. 2014 deadline for reporting.
On the health care fight, which the AFL-CIO could not settle without a vote on the floor, several unions said the Obama administration's interpretation of the Affordable Health Care Act would virtually trash multi-employer health care plans, which cover 20 million people -- workers, retirees, and their families -- nationwide.
Those plans, prevalent in construction, but present in other industries too - such as food processing and seafaring - let joint union-management boards run health care plans that cover workers who frequently shift from job site to job site in an industry.
"If the ACA is not fixed, if it destroys the health and welfare funds we fought for, it needs to be repealed!" said Terry O'Sullivan, president of the Laborers International Union of North America."The proud men and women we represent cannot be collateral damage!" of the health care law.
"The ACA as it currently stands is not meeting its promise," added Electrical Workers (IBEW) President Ed Hill, whose union was also among the six that have openly written to congressional leaders saying they must fix the health care law.
"This is make or break for a lot of unions, not just the building trades," warned Joe Nigro of the Sheet Metal Workers. "A resolution is a piece of paper and may offend a lot of politicians, but a labor movement is run by leaders who represent working men and women...You let the ACA bill go through like this and you won't need a room a quarter of this size" for the next federation convention four years from now," he added, in the strongest language heard on the matter in LA last week.
"We have to follow this with action," declared Unite Here President D Taylor, after reminding delegates of ACA's benefits - and of exceptions that Obama already "illegally" granted to businesses, congressional staffers, and some religious-run enterprises.
Both the federation's president, Richard Trumka, and Professional and Technical Engineers President Greg Junemann said the eventual goal of the health care fight should be something better than the ACA altogether - a single-payer government-run national health care system.
Many on the floor said they did not want to be seen as getting into bed with right wing opponents of health care reform. Some noted that many of the flaws that the law does have are due to the fact that proponents of health care reform met so much resistance when they were crafting the law and were forced to include difficult things in the final package in order to get it passed. "The conservatives surely weren't going for single payer so then you end up with a far from perfect law and we see the Republicans who made sure it would be far from being perfect coming out and saying that we should ditch it all together. No one in the labor movement wants to be seen joining up with those people," one union leader on the convention floor said as debate was going on.
The other union opposing the American Health Care Act was the California Nurses Association/ National Nurses Organizing Committee, which stayed away from the convention until its final session due to, among other issues, disagreement about the ACA itself. The nurses' union has been one of labor's most ardent advocates of single-payer, which 21 unions endorsed before the AFL-CIO's 2009 convention.
"The ACA does not solve the health care crisis facing all of the people, not just union people," said Kathryn Donahue, a spokesperson for the nurses' union. "It will not improve access to health care" and "will not remove health care from collective bargaining." Her union provided the scattered "no" votes when convention delegates approved the compromise health care resolution by voice vote. The compromise health care resolution specifies, among other things, that:
• The AFL-CIO backs single-payer - along with other alternatives it OK'd in 2009.
• Demands Congress amend the ACA unless the act is "administered in a manner that preserves the high-quality coverage" of multi-employer plans.
• Says the multi-employer plans "should have access to the ACA's premium tax credits and cost-sharing reductions...just as for-profit insurance companies will." The difference between the two has been the big problem in private talks Trumka and other union leaders have had with White House staffers.
• Says workers toiling more than 20 hours a week must be covered by ACA's employer responsibility rules. The ACA now sets the lower limit at 30 hours per week. Several speakers at the convention said private firms - and some state and local governments - are racing to cut full-timers to 29 hours, to get out from under the act.
• Declares the employer responsibility rules should extend to construction companies with at least five employees, not 50. The 50-worker rule would exempt the overwhelming majority of construction firms, building trades leaders say.
• Reiterates unions' strong opposition to taxing health care benefits.
Photo: AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka speaks at the 2013 convention. PW