As most American progressives know, nearly every industrialized country in the world has a government-funded health care program—except the US. Not as many of us know, however, that in nearly all of those countries, organized labor was a central player in fighting for and defending those systems.
The unionists gathered over the weekend at the Labor Campaign for Single-Payer conference in Chicago argue that if universal health care is ever to be achieved in the US, labor must play a key role in pushing for it—which many have plans to do, particularly on the state level, in the near future.
The LCSP was founded in 2009 by a broad group of union activists, including Mark Dudzic, a former union local president, and longtime labor organizer and rabble-rouser Jerry Tucker. Tucker, who died late last year and was commemorated Friday by the campaign, was a stalwart organizer at the rank-and-file level, having little interest in the shifts of power in labor’s upper echelons. That spirit clearly still animates the campaign; attendees seemed to see the hopes for single-payer to come not from on high, but through organizing at labor’s grassroots.
Campaign activists, like many on the left, acknowledged the Affordable Care Act’s positive outcomes like some expanded coverage and the expansion of Medicaid while arguing it does not go nearly far enough in its reforms. Dudzic, the national coordinator of the campaign, says that labor and the progressive movement face a pivotal choice after the ACA has been cemented as the law of the land.
“We’re in a new strategic position,” Dudzic says. “We can either circle the wagons around what’s already been accomplished—which anybody who’s been around for the last 30 years would know is a strategy destined for failure—or we can continue to move forward to real health care justice.
“We want to challenge labor to keep moving.”
Many activists are looking to Vermont as an example to follow. The Green Mountain State saw a successful campaign for single-payer that began in 2008. The fight was led by labor—not by a traditional union, but by the Vermont Workers Center, a community-based worker rights organization, who assembled a broad coalition including many unions that successfully pushed single-payer legislation around a “health care is a human right” framework.
Leslie Matthews, a member of the VWC, says that while full implementation of single-payer is several years away in the state, the laws have already had significant impact. When the University of Vermont’s Fletcher Allen hospital decided their dialysis services were no longer profitable, they looked to a $26 million bid to a for-profit company to privatize them. Alongside the Vermont Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, the VWC mobilized against this move, saying it was incompatible with the state’s single-payer legislation like H. 202 and Act 48 and demanded the state’s Department of Banking, Insurance, Securities and Health Care Administration reject the offer. They did.