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Solidarity With Health Reform

Labor Flexes Muscle in Summer to Ensure Bill’s Fall Passage

While the rest of America clipped coupons and stayed close to home in August, unions spent mightily on ad buys, road tours and other grass-roots campaigns to bolster public support for a major overhaul of the nation’s health care system.

“It’s having some effect,— AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka said. “Months ago, people probably would have said the public option was a cadaver. Not now.—

Trumka, whose organization supports a public insurance option, is expected to be elected AFL-CIO president at the labor coalition’s convention next week in Pittsburgh. Trumka’s federation estimates that 18,000-plus union card holders attended town hall meetings during the August break.

The AFL-CIO hired Democratic pollster Peter Hart to conduct a survey just before the summer recess. Along with jobs and education, the poll suggests that health care continues to dominate the minds of Americans.

The survey included interviews with 1,156 participants, more than half of whom were 35 years old or younger. Of that subset, nearly one-third were uninsured or living with their parents.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, an AFL-CIO affiliate, shelled out $6 million on its “Make America Happen— campaign during the recess. The three-week blitz included advertising buys, phone banking and an RV tour that targeted 10 states.

In August, the AFSCME RV tour made stops in 19 cities.

In the days before the August recess, AFSCME also spent $800,000 on health-care-related television ads targeting Democratic lawmakers in nine states: Michigan, Tennessee, Georgia, Louisiana, Ohio, Indiana, North Dakota, Arkansas and California.

“What if we stripped away the $13 billion insurance company profits? The $119 million CEO pay? The endless denials? The soaring co-pays and premiums?— a narrator asked in the pre-recess TV spots. “You’d have health care between you and your doctor — that’s the president’s plan. Keep the coverage you have now. Or choose from a range of plans, including a public health insurance option to lower costs and keep insurance companies honest.—

The Service Employees International Union, a member of the rival Change to Win federation, used its members to target 64 lawmakers during the August recess.

SEIU also continued to work with a variety of coalitions, including Health Care for America Now, a labor-backed group whose T-shirts and placards were widely seen at town hall meetings around the country during the August recess.

Along with Organizing for America, Health Care for America Now hosted more than 2,000 health care events during the August recess. Organizing for America, which inherited more than 13 million e-mail addresses and cell phone numbers from President Barack Obama’s White House campaign, is the grass-roots arm of the Democratic National Committee.

Health Care for America Now spent roughly $2.5 million on paid advertising during the break.

Health Care for America Now spokeswoman Jacki Schechner said her group and others in the labor community were caught off-guard by the tone and attendance at some town hall events in the opening days of recess.

“We expected Members of Congress to be able to go home and talk to their constituents about health care reform,— Schechner said. “I don’t think what panned out during the first few weeks of August anybody expected because it wasn’t a productive conversation.—

“They’re not even really opponents of reform, they’re just opponents,— he continued. “The yelling, the distractions, the coordinated effort to derail the actual conversation caught people a little flat-footed.—

“But in the last few weeks of August, it started to become clear that’s exactly what it was: a distraction,— she added.

Health Care for America Now did not alter its budget during the August recess to counter the conservative effort to torpedo Democrat’s health care priorities. Schechner said the assumption among labor groups is that the outrage would blow over.

“We didn’t spend any more or less than we would’ve spent during the month of August,— she said. “You always expect opposition, but we were surprised that the opposition was of the nature it was.—

“Members of Congress have had town hall meetings forever, and the expectation was people would be able to show up and have an actual conversation about health care, so they could understand this legislation that’s moving through Congress,— Schechner added.

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