Labor reminds Dems: public option a must

A prominent union official repeated labor’s threat against Democrats, warning that come election time, the party could lose labor support if there is no government-run healthcare plan option in reform legislation.

Richard Trumka, the secretary-treasurer for the AFL-CIO, defined the public option as an “absolute must” if lawmakers want to effect serious changes to the nation’s healthcare system. The likely next president of the 11 million member-strong union group elaborated further, saying there were three essential elements needed to achieve healthcare reform.

“You have to have an employer mandate. You can’t tax the benefits of employers to pay for it and you have to have a public option,” Trumka said. “Elsewise, you don’t get health insurance reform. You don’t break the stranglehold of the insurance companies and the system goes on and on and on, as it has. Costs go up and the quality of care goes down.”

The union official added that if the final bill does not include the public option, his group would not support it. Union members lobbied hard for the proposal, showing up to more than 400 town hall meetings in August. Democrats faced a tough month as protesters against healthcare reform disrupted meetings and pressured lawmakers.

As part of their push for comprehensive healthcare reform, the AFL-CIO released a survey Tuesday by Hart Research Associates in late July of young workers. In the survey, 31 percent of young workers say they are uninsured, up from 24 percent 10 years ago. Seventy-nine percent of the uninsured say they do not have coverage because they cannot afford it or their employer does not offer it.

That is why Trumka and other union officials are behind the public option, since the uninsured and the working poor could opt into the proposal. An alternative being offered by centrist Democrats to the plan, insurance cooperatives, are “too weak” and are “not ready for primetime,” Trumka said.

The union leader said lawmakers that move against the public option do so at their peril.

“If you are not willing to do what you promised to do, you will have a tough time convincing our members at election time that you really do stand with them,” Trumka said.

“We are going to tell our members the truth, who stood with them, who stood with health insurance reform, who wanted to make the insurance companies happy versus those who wanted to make Americans healthy,” he said.

Another key plank of the AFL-CIO’s legislative agenda is the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), which would make union organizing much easier. Business groups have lobbied heavily against the bill while several Democratic senators have wavered in support of the legislation or have outright opposed it.

In turn, the AFL-CIO has settled on moving the healthcare reform package before EFCA.

“Both the leadership and the president have made it clear that they want to move the national healthcare reform prior to taking up the Employee Free Choice Act,” said John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO. “We support their position.”

But Sweeney did say he thinks the union bill will pass this year.