Labor to lawmakers: Dont take our support for granted!

A meeting of the AFL-CIO’s executive council in Silver Springs, Md., ended July 28 with declarations calling for a new New Deal modeled after the Works Progress Administration of the 1930s, a massive second economic stimulus package, passage of health care reform with a strong public option and passage of the Employee Free Choice Act.

Reports coming out of the deliberations, however, indicate the determination of a growing number of labor leaders to serve notice on lawmakers who had union support in the last round of elections that such backing cannot be taken for granted in the future. Some at the meeting indicated their unions will not endorse candidates, including Democrats, who sell out on issues important to workers.

Sources say that among those making this point most directly were AFSCME President Gerald McEntee, Sheet Metal Workers President Michael Sullivan, California State Employees Association representative Clyde Rivers and California Nurses Association Executive Director Rose Ann DeMoro.

Sullivan said the Sheet Metal Workers’ finance committee, which gave $2.4 million to candidates in the 2007-08 election cycle, will give politicians nothing during the current cycle. He said his union wants to spend money campaigning for “real” health care reform and for passage of a “real” Employee Free Choice Act.

“We should stop supporting the lapdogs among the Democrats unless they do real health care reform and a real Employee Free Choice Act,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan’s definition of “real” when it comes to health care reform is a plan that includes a strong public option, the plan advocated by the AFL-CIO, or a single-payer plan backed by many individual unions. His definition of “real” when it comes to labor law reform is a bill that requires recognition of a union as soon as a majority of workers sign cards indicating that they want such representation.

At least two leaders at the meeting made statements that triggered discussion about the health care legislation now moving through Congress on the one hand, and a single-payer government-run universal health insurance plan on the other. Many unions have passed resolutions in favor of such a plan, which would abolish private insurers altogether.

The Californians at the meeting were the strongest advocates for this plan. They have twice played the major role in getting such a plan through their state legislature, only to see Republican Gov. Arnold Scwarzenegger veto it.

McEntee, whose union is mobilizing for President Obama’s plan, favored continuing on that course, for now. He emphasized, however, that his union’s support for that plan is conditioned upon creation within it of a strong public option. He said the government-run competitor is needed to curb the unlimited power of private insurance companies.

DeMoro emphasized, in discussions with the press after the meeting, that labor is more than just one of the lobbyists lawmakers have to contend with.

“The point is that labor isn’t a special interest,” she said, “but that we represent the working people, and our expectation is the Democratic Congress would do so too.”

She said the plan emerging from Congress was not adequate and that a single-payer plan is what is really needed.

McEntee said it was necessary to see what congressional committees come out with before the AFL-CIO considers any type of change in its position. He noted that bills emerging from committees are “a first step” in a long process and that labor and its allies must continue to apply pressure along the way.

Financing of health care reform was also discussed at the meeting.

The labor federation had already backed the funding mechanism adopted by a key House committee that involves a surtax on the incomes of those in the top 1 percent tax bracket. “Blue Dog” Democrats may already have succeeded in scuttling that proposal.

One idea that the executive council members looked on with favor, but did not specifically endorse, was a proposal by Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., to tax the health insurance companies and bar them from passing on their taxes to policyholders. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has praised the proposal and President Obama has said he wants to study it further.

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said he had doubts about another idea, a proposal under consideration in the Senate Finance Committee to tax high-cost health care plans.

“The Goldman-Sachs Cadillac plan for executives may be the target of this proposal, but it could end up hitting benefits for workers and retirees already reeling from health care costs if lawmakers rely on this as a way to curb federal spending rather than enact real cost containment,” Sweeney said. jwojcik @ pww.org