Workers ‘Becoming Backbone’ of Health Care Reform Effort

The active participation of union members is changing the tone of the health care reform town hall meetings going on now during the August congressional recess. What began as forums for anti-Obama propaganda are now becoming platforms for real debate over what kind of reform is needed.

Much of the credit goes to union members who have mobilized to take back the town halls from the campaign of misinformation being waged by extremist groups, some backed by corporate donors and fueled with talking points from extremist Republicans.

Even the stalwart conservative newspaper, The Washington Times, had to admit that union members are making a difference in the tone of the town halls. In today’s edition, the Times says:

Members of the nation’s labor unions have made up a hefty segment of the audiences that flocked to town halls Mr. Obama held in the past week, and they have played an even larger role in a nationwide campaign for an insurance overhaul. Financially, and with boots on the ground, unions have become the backbone of the president’s effort.

The Times quotes Troy Goodson, a member of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 969 in Grand Junction, Colo., who explained why health care reform is needed. Goodson, 55, said he has triplets at home, and their hospital delivery costs alone would have left him underwater financially had he lacked adequate insurance. He said he’s glad to see union members out in force, pushing for the president’s plan.

He told the Times:

The big corporations and the insurance industry, they’re lobbying 24/7. Someone has to fight against that.

And we are fighting back in a big way.

When President Obama held a town hall meeting in Helena, Mont., the crowd inside reached about 1,300, many of them union members. Outside, another 1,100 people rallied for and against reform. The Montana State AFL-CIO reports that 700 of the 1,100 were union members and pro-health care reform supporters, outnumbering opponents by about two to one.

Montana union members came by bus from Missoula, Billings and Great Falls to the town hall, followed in each case by long car pool caravans. One caravan came from Havre, which is on the Canadian border, about a five-hour drive away from Helena.

In Mason City, Iowa, between 50 and 60 people were turned away from a health care reform town hall meeting hosted by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) because of fire code concerns. So many people came to the meeting that they couldn’t all fit into the room where the town hall was scheduled.

That was not the case in Nashville, Tenn., where only one anti-health care reform opponent showed up at a protest on Friday. According to the Associated Press, Tom Kovach, state director of America’s Independent Party, said he’d hoped to see at least 50 people at the protest.

Instead, the only company he had was a handful of reporters and a few passing joggers. Kovach acknowledged that Friday was school students’ first day back and that protesters may have wanted to be “cautious,” considering the group was criticized for protesting near the school.

In Nebraska, some 40 people rallied in downtown Omaha Saturday afternoon to show their support for health care change. The rally was part of AFSCME’s “Highway to Health Care” tour, which will stop in 21 cities over three weeks. It was organized by AFSCME and the AFL-CIO. The tour also traveled to the state capitol in Lincoln on Sunday.

It seems that anti-worker forces are not only using the town halls to oppose health care reform but also are taking aim at the Employee Free Choice Act. The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) has sent out a list of town hall meetings and is encouraging its members to show up and speak out against the bill, which, according to NAM, says “that any version of the [Employee Free Choice Act] is unacceptable to manufacturers.”

James Parks: My first encounter with unions was at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when my colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. I saw firsthand how companies pull out all the stops to prevent workers from forming a union. I am a journalist by trade, and I worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. I also have been a seminary student, drug counselor, community organizer, event planner, adjunct college professor and county bureaucrat. My proudest career moment, though, was when I served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections.

This article originally appeared on the AFL-CIO Blog on August 19, 2009 and is reprinted here with permission from the source.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.