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AFL-CIO unions debate health care, student debt, more

President, Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO

LOS ANGELES (Sept. 12, 2013) — The final day of convention action was packed with resolutions on a number of great issues, which I will briefly outline in a minute, but the long awaited resolution on health care was the emotional highlight of the day.

Resolutions on global organizing, student debt, financing public education, protecting public services, labor education, state federation and central labor council accountability, AFL-CIO financial accountability, building a postal service for the 21st century, international solidarity, the American Labor Museum, and the Gateway Pacific Terminal were run throughout the day.


Sandra Schroeder addresses the AFL-CIO Convention regarding student debt burdens.

Sandra Schroeder, formerly of AFT Washington, spoke eloquently about the need to address the staggering debt load of college education and the consequence of many young working class people giving up on their dreams of a higher education.

Herb Krohn of the United Transportation Union and I spoke on behalf of the Gateway Pacific Terminal. Herb did a great job explaining the employment benefits of the project. I spoke about the economic context of the project and the state-of-the-art environmental considerations built into the project.

I also spoke to the need for Peabody and Patriot Coal to honor the bargained-for retiree health care benefits and pension benefits or we would not support one lump of coal being transported to Gateway. President Trumka and President Cecil Roberts of United Mine Workers appreciated the support in the effort to bring justice for mine workers.

But health care resolutions were the main attraction. Resolution 15 was the appetizer. This resolution focused on strengthening Medicare as a prerequisite to establishing it as a model for a universal, single-payer system.

Resolution 54 was the main course. The debate was led by Sean McGarvey of the AFL-CIO Building Trades Department, Terry O’Sullivan of the Laborers (LIUNA), Greg Juneman of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, Ed Hill of the Electrical Workers (IBEW), D. Taylor of UNITE HERE, and many others.

These union presidents spoke passionately about supporting the positive changes in the Affordable Care Act, but also about how the ACA severely discriminates against multi-employer Taft-Hartley plans by imposing excessive costs on union coverage that non-union employers would not incur; how this creates huge competitive inequalities; how these plans are not eligible for the public subsidies that participants in for-profit insurance plans receive; how the ACA enables employers to drop wages or hours to avoid penalties and to drop employees right into Medicaid, etc.

The sentiment in the room was that if changes were not made to the ACA to protect the quality health care provided by unions to more than 20 million people, benefits that were fought for over time, benefits that were won by giving up wages over time, then when the AFL-CIO Convention reconvenes in four years, many unions in the room today would no longer be there because they will have folded.

Many leaders acknowledged that the real solution was to create a single-payer health care system for all, but that in the meantime, the ACA had to be administered in a way to preserve the high-quality health coverage of multi-employer plans or be amended by Congress. Discussions with the White House over health care and the ACA will continue.

The convention ended with affiliates and councils speaking to ways in which they would broaden and deepen the labor movement and how we would hold each other accountable to real change.

Jeff Johnson is President of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, the state’s largest union organization, representing approximately 400,000 rank-and-file union members.

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