March 6, 2012, AFSCME President Lee A. Saunders speaks in Albany, New York. (AP Photo/Stewart Cairns)
Los Angeles—The nation’s largest labor federation closed its quadrennial convention Wednesday by challenging President Obama on the Affordable Care Act, pledging international solidarity and bipartisan politics, and promising to make good on the week’s themes of opening up and doubling down.
An hour before gaveling the convention to a close, AFL-CIO delegates passed a resolution expressing support for aims and accomplishments of the Affordable Care Act and deep concerns over its implementation. The resolution urges that the act “should be administered in a manner that preserves the high-quality health coverage multiemployer plans have provided to union families for decades and, if this is not possible, we demand the ACA be amended by Congress.” It calls for more penalties for employers who cut hours to shirk coverage, curtailing some new taxes and fees applied to union health plans, and extension of tax credits to them. The debate on the resolution stood out for the number of union presidents who personally took the floor to press their case and, more so, for the pointed comments they directed at the White House.
Noting Obama’s pledge to fix what was broken in healthcare and build on what was working, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers President Ed Hill told the hall, “The ACA as it currently stands is not meeting his promise.” “If an employer wanted to transfer money from a nonprofit, successful healthcare plan to a for-profit insurance company,” said Hill, “we’d be on the streets.” Paraphrasing Vice President Biden’s famous whispered comment on the ACA’s passage, Laborers’ International Union of North America President Terence O’Sullivan warned, “It’s gonna be a big fricking deal if our members lose our health insurance.”
While urging support for the resolution, O’Sullivan voiced his concern that “it does not go far enough,” because “If the Affordable Care Act is not fixed, and it destroys the health and welfare funds that we have all fought for and stand for, then I believed it needs to be repealed.” Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Union President Joe Nigro warned that the ACA, if not fixed, would decimate union membership: “I guarantee you, by your next convention four years from now, you won’t need a quarter of this room. You won’t be here.”
The ACA resolution had been repeatedly revised and debated in private meetings of union leaders this week, including one held at 7:15 am Wednesday. It ultimately passed with little public disagreement, save a speech by Catherine Donahue, a delegate from the California Nurses Association who opposed the resolution on the grounds that the AFL-CIO’s focus should be on winning a single-payer system instead.
The Hill’s Kevin Bogardus reported Wednesday that the Obama administration had placed calls to union leaders asking them not to pass the resolution. In convention addresses this week, both White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett and Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez emphasized the administration’s commitment to working through ACA administration issues with union leaders. Sean McGarvey, who leads the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Division, described the resolution to delegates as one that “arms our leader and our team of leaders” in such talks.
Interviewed shortly before the vote, American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees President Lee Saunders, whose union is the AFL-CIO’s largest, told The Nation, “We’re going to sit down with the president and have some constructive discussion with him and try to impress on him the importance of you know, making some changes to it and have this as a work in progress.” Asked about LIUNA’s stance raising repeal as a possibility, Saunders said simply, “That’s not anywhere in the resolution.”
Soon after a voice vote passing the ACA resolution, delegates passed a series of others, including one on “Bipartisan Political Action.” That resolution—submitted by the BCTD, not by one of the AFL-CIO’s pre-convention committees—stated that “the labor movement is charged with using all of its resources to advance its members’ interests in respect to job creation and the availability of sustainable wages, benefits, and working conditions” and committed the AFL-CIO to a “pragmatic, bipartisan approach” to electoral efforts “that focuses primarily on candidates’ positions on issues of direct importance to workers.” That contrasts, at least in emphasis, with resolutions like the one passed by delegates on Monday stating that “The labor movement’s engagement on issues like voting rights, mass incarceration, student debt, paid sick days and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act shows the labor movement’s commitment to issues important to our members and our allies.”
The “Bipartisan Political Action” resolution was introduced by International Association of Fire Fighters President Harold Schaitberger, who said his union has already implemented “this simple principle, by saying if you’re with us, we’re with you.” No delegates rose to speak in support or opposition to the resolution, which passed easily on a voice vote; one delegate could be heard yelling “no.” The AFL-CIO referred a request for comment about the resolution to the BCTD; a spokesperson did not immediately respond to a Wednesday evening inquiry regarding what would qualify as “issues of direct importance to workers.” In an e-mail to The Nation, AFSCME’s Saunders said his union supported the BCTD’s resolution because it “makes it clear that elected officials can no longer hide behind party affiliation” and “our support is going to be based on their record of support for working families.”
Sarita Gupta, who helms the labor-community organizing and advocacy group Jobs With Justice—American Rights at Work, said this week’s convention showed how recent years’ “alt-labor” efforts by workers excluded from labor law had earned serious attention and engagement within the AFL-CIO. “You have to build a bit of a track record in order for traditional labor to really say, ‘Oh, there’s something happening here, and how do we relate to it,” Gupta told The Nation. She cited “the incredible work that the domestic workers did to make themselves visible, and to make their organizing visible, and to win some real victories,” which she credited with instigating a greater “appreciation for the informal economy and workers in the informal economy” among AFL-CIO leadership.
John Borsos, the secretary-treasurer National Union of Healthcare Workers, told The Nation that unions certainly “should do a better job” of building community alliances, and that many alternative organizations like workers’ centers were “coming in and filling a vacuum that the labor movement really hasn’t addressed.” But he argued that much of the convention conversation on labor-community partnerships seemed to be “not talking about a trade union movement or a labor movement, as much as it’s talking about a political lobbying operation.” “It may be, in these days and times, perceived as old-fashioned,” said Borsos, “but the power of the union comes from the worksite.”
Asked about such concerns, Gupta said that while not all AFL-CIO unions “even have the tools or know how to engage community,” some of the unions most serious about organizing in the workplace were the same ones aggressively seeking stronger partnerships beyond it. Given the legal obstacles and intense employer opposition facing workers who organize, she said, “there are lots of unions saying we can’t take this fight on by ourselves, so we need to actually be working with community in a different way.” She added that the growing number of workers “who just aren’t in traditional workplaces,” like taxi drivers or domestic workers, “requires a broader community approach to the organizing.”
National Guestworker Alliance Director Saket Soni, who attended the convention with a pair of striking sub-contracted cleaning workers, said he saw a marked contrast between this year’s event and the previous one in 2009. That Pittsburgh convening, he said, “was really about preserving the labor movement as it was.” In contrast, said Soni, “I think this convention is about building a worker movement that’s equal to the challenges of the economy.”
Read Josh Eidelson’s interview with Labor Secretary Thomas Perez.