Still Paying Through the Nose, Labor Campaigns for Single Payer

By Andy Coates for Labor Notes

A year after President Obama signed his health care reform with strong support from the labor movement, advocates of a single-payer system might be tempted to ask, “How’s that working out for you?”

At last weekend’s conference of the Labor Campaign for Single Payer, a Plumbers and Pipe Fitters delegate pointed out that his members are paying $12.31 per hour for their health benefits.

The activists marshaled their forces once again in D.C. last weekend, where campaign coordinator Mark Dudzic reported progress on the group’s mission: “to establish and expand within labor the idea that labor has got to lead this fight” for single payer, or improved and expanded Medicare-for-All.

Indeed, the conference began June 3 at AFL-CIO headquarters and heard from President Richard Trumka himself. Trumka spoke of the reluctance of the AFL-CIO Executive Council to embrace single payer but pointed to disappointment with the president’s Affordable Care Act at the council.

He recalled meetings 20 years ago when he fought for single payer on the council and Karen Ignagni, then assistant to the AFL-CIO president, was “doing her damnedest” to thwart the effort. (Today Ignagni is CEO of America’s Health Insurance Plans, the lead lobby for health insurance corporations.)

Trumka referred to single payer as “the only way to cure the health care problem.” He proposed that labor should “continue to educate about Canada. It’s a big myth about Canada. I go there all the time. You sit down with someone over coffee and ask them: ‘Tell me about your health care.’ They say: ‘Oh, it’s a godsend.’ We need to get that message out.”

The AFL-CIO president also continued to gesture toward political independence for labor, saying, “We should strengthen our support for our friends and do less for our acquaintances.”

As signs of progress, Dudzic noted the federation’s financial support for the Labor Campaign, participation by Vice President Arlene Holt Baker in a press conference announcing single-payer legislation, and the fact that the AFL-CIO sent staffer Nick Unger to help the single-payer efforts in Vermont. (Unger was the same staffer who in 2009-2010 campaigned for single-payer activists to embrace the public option.)

Dudzic also reported progress within the Labor Caucus for Single Payer, a group of nine internationals chaired by Greg Junemann of the Professional and Technical Engineers. Dudzic suggested several unions in which single-payer activists should “insist that our leaders follow the direction of the members.”

Without the White House

The deafening silence coming from the White House was a recurring theme as participants discussed the state-by-state assault on labor, ongoing unemployment, and the relentless rise in the costs of care. Stuart Acuff of the Utility Workers counseled, “Our job is not to follow Obama. Our job is to hold Obama accountable.”

Although the chances of passing a single-payer bill this year are less than remote, delegates welcomed Representative Jim McDermott of Washington by conference call and Representatives John Conyers and Dennis Kucinich, co-sponsors of HR 676, in person. HR 676, which calls for a publicly financed, privately delivered health care system, has been introduced every year since 2003.

McDermott, a psychiatrist, recently introduced a single-payer House companion to one introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Delegates agreed to support both the McDermott and Conyer bills, yet took note that HR 676 covers the undocumented, forces for-profit hospitals to convert to non-profit status, and requires federal, instead of state-by-state, administration.

On more immediate efforts in the states, delegates heard a panel from Vermont, where the Act for a Universal and Unified Health System was signed into law May 26. Mari Cordes of the Vermont Nurses/AFT recalled that only two years ago single-payer advocates were called “bomb throwers” by Vermont legislators for sticking to a cause labeled “too hard” and “not possible.”

Jill Charbeonneau, president of the Vermont AFL-CIO, cautioned that the legislation was the first in a series of steps toward single payer—”a skeleton this year,” followed by a year-long process of defining the scope of health benefits under the plan, followed by a second to third year process “to decide how to finance the system,” and ultimately a need for waivers from the federal government.

A video excerpt from the Vermont Workers Center illustrated the grassroots campaign, predicting: “If Vermont Leads, the Rest of the Nation Will Follow.” On a panel about the effort in California, Cindy Young of the California Nurses Association laid out a multi-year strategy for achieving single payer in that state.

Don Tremontozzi, a local president who is running for the No. 2 job in the Communications Workers national union, described how his members phone-banked for single payer in Vermont this spring.

“Once it was, ‘I want what the unions have,’” Trementozzi said. “Now it’s, ‘Why should you have 100 percent coverage?’ We need to get to the public.”

He roused the room with a call to defend the existing benefits companies are trying to claw back.

Drawing parallels between his union’s upcoming contract negotiations with Verizon and talks now under way with General Electric, Trementozzi said, “Yesterday at the CWA headquarters Verizon made a presentation about how costly health care is. These companies make billions in profits! They pay their CEOs millions!”

Trementozzi said “these companies act like they make no money at all” when they come crying to jack up insurance rates and cut health benefits for retirees.

“I say, ‘Over my dead body!’” Trementozzi said. “When a company makes billions and pays no taxes—we won’t stand for it!”


  1. jacksmith on June 10, 2011 at 6:45 am


    ( )

    ( Gov. Peter Shumlin: Real Healthcare reform — )

    ( Health Care Budget Deficit Calculator — )

    ( Briefing: Dean Baker on Boosting the Economy by Saving Healthcare )


    As you all know. Had congress passed a single-payer or government-run robust Public Option CHOICE! available to everyone on day one, our economy and jobs would have taken off like a rocket. And still will. Single-payer would be best. But a government-run robust Public Option CHOICE! that can lead to a single-payer system is the least you can accept. It’s not about competing with for-profit healthcare and for-profit health insurance. It’s about replacing it with Universal Healthcare Assurance. Everyone knows this now.

    The message from the midterm elections was clear. The American people want real healthcare reform. They want that individual mandate requiring them to buy private health insurance abolished. And they want a government-run robust public option CHOICE! available to everyone on day one. And they want it now.

    They want Drug re-importation, and abolishment, or strong restrictions on patents for biologic and prescription drugs. And government controlled and negotiated drug and medical cost. They want back control of their healthcare system from the Medical Industrial Complex. And they want it NOW!


    For profit health insurance is extremely unethical, and morally repugnant. It’s as morally repugnant as slavery was. And few if any decent Americans are going to allow them-self to be compelled to support such an unethical and immoral crime against humanity.

    This is a matter of National and Global security. There can be NO MORE EXCUSES.

    Further, we want that corrupt, undemocratic filibuster abolished. Whats the point of an election if one corrupt member of congress can block the will of the people, and any legislation the majority wants. And do it in secret. Give me a break people.

    Also, unemployment healthcare benefits are critically needed. But they should be provided through the Medicare program at cost, less the 65% government premium subsidy provided now to private for profit health insurance.

    Congress should stop wasting hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money on private for profit health insurance subsidies. Subsidies that cost the taxpayer 10x as much or more than Medicare does. Private for profit health insurance plans cost more. But provide dangerous and poorer quality patient care.



    This is what the American people are shouting at you. Both parties have just enough power now to do what the American people want. GET! IT! DONE! NOW!

    If congress does not abolish the individual mandate. And establish a government-run public option CHOICE! before the end of 2011. EVERY! member of congress up for reelection in 2012 will face strong progressive pro public option, and anti-individual mandate replacement candidates.

    Strong progressive pro “PUBLIC OPTION” CHOICE! and anti-individual mandate volunteer candidates should begin now. And start the process of replacing any and all members of congress that obstruct, or fail to add a government-run robust PUBLIC OPTION CHOICE! before the end of 2011.

    We need two or three very strong progressive volunteer candidates for every member of congress that will be up for reelection in 2012. You should be fully prepared to politically EVISCERATE EVERY INCUMBENT that fails or obstructs “THE PUBLIC OPTION”. And you should be willing to step aside and support the strongest pro “PUBLIC OPTION” candidate if the need arises.

    ASSUME CONGRESS WILL FAIL and SELLOUT again. So start preparing now to CUT THEIR POLITICAL THROATS. You can always step aside if they succeed. But only if they succeed. We didn’t have much time to prepare before these past midterm elections. So the American people had to use a political shotgun approach. But by 2012 you will have a scalpel.

    Congress could have pass a robust government-run public option during it’s lame duck session. They knew what the American people wanted. They already had several bills on record. And the house had already passed a public option. Departing members could have left with a truly great accomplishment. And the rest of you could have solidified your job before the 2012 elections.

    President Obama, you promised the American people a strong public option available to everyone. And the American people overwhelmingly supported you for it. Maybe it just wasn’t possible before. But it is now.

    Knock heads. Threaten people. Or do whatever you have to. We will support you. But get us that robust public option CHOICE! available to everyone on day one before the end of 2011. Or We The People Of The United States will make the past midterm election look like a cake walk in 2012. And it will include you.

    We still have a healthcare crisis in America. With hundreds of thousands dieing needlessly every year in America. And a for profit medical industrial complex that threatens the security and health of the entire world. They have already attacked the world with H1N1 killing thousands, and injuring millions. And more attacks are planned for profit, and to feed their greed.

    Spread the word people.

    Progressives, prepare the American peoples scalpels. It’s time to remove some politically diseased tissues.

    God Bless You my fellow human beings. I’m proud to be one of you. You did good.

    See you on the battle field.


    jacksmith – WorkingClass :-)

  2. John "Hai" Knapp on June 11, 2011 at 2:22 pm

    There are many factories moved oversea,
    still one remains, hope long it will be.
    It’s the charger plant, the brave white knight,
    good going friends, keep up the good fight.

    ch>A-For-Da-Ble Health’ will save our economy,
    it is in the best interest of everybody.
    if every job moves out of the country,
    than (tell me) whose gonna pay the medical fee?
    —verse and chorus of “The Charger Plant, the Brave White Knight.

  3. Sally Burnell on June 13, 2011 at 1:56 pm

    it’s a crime that the US STILL doesn’t consider health care as a human right. I now consider myself uninsured, because my deductible is so obscenely high that I can never reach it, meaning that, in essence, I will forever have to pay my own health care bills, and I can’t afford them. So I am going to beg my doctor, next time I see him, to cease and desist from any diagnostic testing because that comes out of my hide and I can’t afford those expensive tests. I’ll have to ask him to do things the old fashioned way, hands-on like doctors of old did to diagnose problems so all I pay for is a standard office visit instead of a massive bill that includes some diagnostic test I can’t afford.

    In addition to my ridiculous deductible, my premiums keep going up by about 10% each year and we’ve been in a prolonged pay freeze at my job, meaning that I make less each year I stay at my job. I always thought it would be the other way around, but I can say with all honesty that I made much more money 5 years ago than I do now. I am forced to live paycheck to paycheck, hoping the money will hold out until payday. And I live frugally. I live in an apartment that I outgrew decades ago but I cannot afford larger quarters. I live on cans of cheap soup, something I never imagined I’d have to do at my age. Friends who’ve retired from where I work say you make more money sitting home retired than you do working, and I’m thinking seriously of taking an early retirement so at least I may have a better standard of living. (I’m two years from eligibility to retire, but who knows where the economy will be by then?)

    Sadly, any dream of single payer is just tilting at windmills. NEVER gonna happen. Not in our lifetime. Big Insurance and Big Pharma, especially with the Citizens United ruling, can now buy their candidates of choice to keep us all paying obscene prices for health care. We’ve lost whatever shreds of democracy we had left. Single payer is nothing more than a distant dream that we can fantasize about. The best thing to do if you want universal health care is to become an ex-pat like my sister did two decades ago. I think she got it right. She pays nothing for full care where she lives. Where she is, health care is considered a human right. Too bad the US can’t get it straight on that count. And we never will, either. :-(