Health care tops list in California

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Health care is taking center stage in the election campaign here, as the struggle heats up over Proposition 72, the Health Insurance Act, which will provide health insurance to over a million uninsured Californians, and limit how much employers can charge workers for their health benefits.

“What happens in California about Prop. 72 has great national importance for working families,” California Labor Federation (CLF) Political Director Bryan Blum told the World in a telephone interview. “If it is killed here, it will be a decade before it could advance again.”

Prop. 72, which would initially require employers of 200 or more workers to provide coverage, and would later reduce the threshold to 50 workers, upholds a state law passed by the Legislature last year and signed by Gov. Gray Davis before he was recalled in October 2003. It is opposed by a coalition of giant retailers including Wal-Mart and McDonald’s as well as the Chamber of Commerce. The latest poll shows 51 percent of likely voters support Prop. 72, while 29 percent are opposed and 20 percent are undecided.

The issue is seen as helping to bring voters to the polls on Nov. 2. “It makes politics mean something to people personally to vote to get health care,” said Bill Camp, executive secretary of the Sacramento Central Labor Council. “The issue gets people out to vote, and if they vote for Prop. 72, they will vote for (John) Kerry and (Sen. Barbara) Boxer, because the Republicans have sold the people out on every health care issue.”

The California Labor Federation is a major supporter of the Yes on Prop. 72 Coalition, which embraces over 160 labor, faith-based and community organizations, including the California Medical Association, Health Access, the Latino Issues Forum, ACORN, the Immigrant Welfare Collaborative, the ACLU of Southern California and NOW.

The CLF is emphasizing member-to-member communication on key issues, starting with Prop. 72, with mailings to members, check-ups on registration status, worksite leafleting, and workplace discussions on the importance of Prop. 72 to uninsured and insured alike.

“Our members need to get the truth from sources they trust, rather than being taken in by false TV ads from the retailers. We are a trusted source for them,” said Blum.

While most California congressional races are not as competitive as those targeted nationally by the AFL-CIO, the state Senate’s most competitive race is District 5 in the Central Valley, where Democratic Sen. Mike Machado is challenged by Stockton mayor and union-buster Gary Podesto, owner of a large chain of nonunion grocery stores. The CLF is helping the central labor councils to phone-bank and walk precincts.

Several California labor councils are also sending union members to neighboring battleground states, Nevada and Oregon.

“When I walked in Sparks (Nevada), I talked with seven registered Republican union members, and six of them were going to vote against Bush,” said Camp. “Nevada’s a ‘right to work’ state and the people are very upset about Bush’s new overtime rules. There are also a lot of retired workers there, very concerned about health care.”

In Reno and Sparks the California volunteers walked with area union members organized by the Washoe County Labor Council.

The Sacramento CLC recently cosponsored a dinner-dance with the janitors’ union, SEIU Local 1877, to raise funds to send several janitors to Arizona, another battleground state.

Ray Trujillo, the Northern California director of the State Building and Construction Trades Council, said, the GOP “doesn’t want labor to have a voice but we’ll have a big voice this year.”