Anger over Health Care Bill Creates Uncertain Future
by Jane Slaughter, January 20, 2010
A Massachusetts local union president called it before the January 19
vote for senator: Ive never seen this much anger at the Democrats from
union people,said Jeff Crosby, president of a General Electric factory
local near Boston, as he prepared a last-minute leaflet to hand out in
the plant. Its worse than NAFTA.
Top union leaders had bargained a compromise  slowing down the
health care benefits tax President Obama insisted on, but it was not
enough to placate union membersand othersinfuriated that Obama had
broken his campaign promise not to tax benefits.
Crosby said his members were threatening to vote Republican to stop
the tax, since 60 Democratic senators and no Republicans had voted for
it. In Massachusettsspecial election they chose empty-suit Republican
Scott Brown over a Democrat bound to cement the benefits tax in place.
In a Suffolk University poll conducted a week before the election,
union-household voters in Massachusetts reported only 45 percent
support for the Democratic candidate; union voters nationally backed
Obama by 60 percent in 2008.
According to those on a January 14 conference call with AFL-CIO
President Rich Trumka, Massachusetts state fed President Bobby Haynes
exploded in anger, blaming top union leaders for a terrible health
care bill and for losing the Massachusetts electionand thus the
Dems60th Senate seat, needed to ensure the health care bills passage
(and the rest of labors agenda, labor law and immigration reform).
Obama took a hands-off approach to the content of the bill as it crept
through Congress. He didnt insist on a public option nor a strong
employer mandate to provide insurance. It was hard not to notice that
the only issue on which he took a hard stand was taxing benefits.
At his meeting with a dozen labor leaders at the White House January
11, Obama was firm that a tax on benefits was a must-havedespite his
campaign promise to the contrary. We have a lot of video clips,said
Machinists President Thomas Buffenbarger.
Although the benefits tax was not the only issue on Massachusetts
votersminds (the faltering economy was the No. 1 concern in the
Suffolk poll), it was one of the clearest examples of the Obama
administrations tilt away from working class voters, beginning with
the bank bailout.
Trumka too had predicted that the health care mess would backfire on
Democrats. In a January 11 speech  at the National Press Club, he
said, In 1992, workers voted for Democrats who promised action on
jobs, who talked about reining in corporate greed, and who promised
health care reform. Instead, we got NAFTA, an emboldened Wall
Streetand not much more. [In 1994] there was no way to persuade enough
working Americans to go to the polls when they couldn't tell the
difference between the two parties.
NAFTA, which dealt a heavy blow to U.S. manufacturing, was voted up by
Congress in 1993 after intense cajoling by President Clinton,
garnering the votes of 102 House Democrats. Clinton lost the
Democratic majority in Congress the next yearand never got it back.
LETS MAKE A DEAL
As the likely House-Senate compromise took shape in early January, it
appeared certain that if the bill passed, people with good (or just
expensive) benefits would face a steep 40 percent tax likely to push
them into inferior plans.
So labor leaders reached a deal  with White House negotiators
January 14 that accepted the tax theyd previously declared
unacceptable. The deal announced by Trumka and his counterparts at
Change to Win and the National Education Association would have
exempted those in union-negotiated plans and state and local employees
from the tax until 2018.
It also would have raised the threshold at which the tax kicked in for
many other plans: those containing significant numbers of women, older
workers, or retirees age 55 and up, or those in high-cost states, the
latter affecting more than 38 million workers. Those provisions would
have delayed those groupshit as well.
Trumkas goal was to exempt as many people as possible, union and non-
union, from ever paying the tax, though only the velocity of health
care cost inflation would have proved how successful he was.
Most of the 31 million insured employees who would be hit by the
excise tax are not union members,Trumka noted before the deal was
struck. But in the end unions bought extra time for their members at
the cost of making themselves look self-interested. The deal will
create awkward moments for union health care activists whove spent
years trying to build broad coalitions.
Not all top union leaders backed the compromise plan. Buffenbarger
told Labor Notes his members at Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and General
Dynamics were already over the $23,000 threshold at which the tax
would originally kick in.
No bill is better than this bill,Buffenbarger said. We don't care what
the amount is that they peg it to: because of inflation, whatever
number will be gobbled up pretty quickly.
Firefighters President Harold Schaitberger said his union didnt ask
for the bills special, higher threshold for first responders, $26,000
rather than $23,000. The provision was worthless, he said, because
most of his members are pooled in larger municipal plans, with no
mechanism to segregate them out. Were not going to buy into a special
deal for us,Schaitberger said.
The Steelworkers Leo Gerard backed the compromise, telling Labor Notes
he was thinking about Senator Jim DeMint, that right-wing nut from one
of the Carolinas,who said he wants to make health care Obamas Waterloo.
We have to do everything to make sure we get a good bill so we can
move forward with the rest of the presidents agenda as quickly as
Insiders say Trumka sold his compromise by arguing that health care
reform had to get done so Congress could tackle long-delayed labor law
reform the Employee Free Choice Act.
Labors weakness throughout the health care reform process put a
question mark over EFCA anyway, and even the question mark lay in
tatters after the Massachusetts election.
Buffenbarger who backed Hillary Clinton in the primaries was a pessimist
in any case. We're not going to get EFCA anyway,he said. Its an
election year. No way they're going to touch it.
TURN TO THE STATES
One bright spot could emerge from this winters health care debacle:
union members not pushed into the arms of the tea-partiers could
become convinced that Medicare for All is the only solution.
It may mean more people are apt to be engaged on single payer because
they are getting hit themselves,said Lenny Potash, a retired AFSCME
member and co-chair of the Labor Taskforce for Universal Healthcare
 in Los Angeles.
Activists in California and Vermont have already begun serious work on
state single-payer efforts.
The Vermont Workers Center  turned out 350 people to legislative
hearings January 12 to testify for the states single-payer bill.
Senator Bernie Sanders was followed by union nurses.
The center, the states Jobs with Justice affiliate, began organizing
in earnest last year: a rally of 1,000 at the State Capitol on a work
day; organized committees in every county; a dozen regional hearings.
The result, says co-chair Traven Leyshon, is that we have changed
whats politically possible. As recently as September the legislature
said they couldn't be bothered with single payer.
All Democratic candidates for governor next fall say they support
single payer (though Leyshon recalls former Governor Howard Dean, who
was always for single payer till the day he became governor). The
Democrats and the Progressive Party together have a veto-proof two-
thirds majority in both houses.
A new single-payer bill, just introduced by a Progressive legislator,
includes a just transition for insurance company workers and others
who would lose their jobs under a single-payer system. The legislation
was written so as to survive legal challenges.
SINGLE PAYER IN ONE STATE
California activists will back a single-payer bill starting this
month, though Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, whos in his last year,
is certain to veto it for the third time (similar bills passed in 2006
and 2008). The campaign kicked off January 11 with 1,000 members of
the California Health Professional Student Alliance and others
rallying in Sacramento.
Michael Lighty of the California Nurses Association  explained that
winning single payer is a multi-year project: heavy education this
year, electing a Democratic governor who wont veto single payer this
fall, passing a new bill, taking the measure to the voters in a
referendum. The media campaign alone could cost as much as $20 million.
What about the cost, in a state thats broke? Cate Engel of the Labor
Taskforce for Universal Healthcare said the bill ultimately would save
California billions of dollars, by reducing administrative costs and
using the states mammoth purchasing power to force drug and equipment
What about California unions that havent backed single payeror ditched
the idea before the fight even began, citing political viabi lity?
Well, said Lighty, we saw what happened on the national level when
they went for public option over single payer because of viability.
Bill Bryce is the Jobs with Justice organizer in Detroit. Hes shaking
his head over the lost opportunities of 2009the year when Obama rode
in on a wave of hope for change and corporations were in disgrace
because of the financial fiasco.
Youre the president, you appear on TV and say, I have a suggestion,
lets tax Wall Street bonuses at 50 percent and defray the cost of
health care,'Bryce said. If this was not the time to take on the
insurance companies and the banks, just when will that time come?