In June (2008) We happened to catch SEIU working the street of Manhattan…
August 6, 2009, 3:39 pm
Katharine Q. Seelye
The nation’s biggest labor unions are bringing their muscle to bear to the raucous health-care debates that have erupted over the last week in Congressional town hall meetings across the country.
John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, sent out a call to arms Thursday for rank-and-file members to counteract what he called the “right-wing ‘Tea Party Patriots’ ” who have been disrupting the meetings.
And the Service Employees International Union, the nation’s largest union of health-care employees, is deploying its members to the meetings to “reclaim our democracy,” according to a statement. Referring to the colorful T-shirts that the union’s members wear at rallies, a spokeswoman said the union was “unleashing the purple people.”
Organized labor’s engagement in the mounting clashes is the latest sign of the ferocity of the fight over the direction of any health-care overhaul. It is also the latest sign of how the debate is swelling toward the levels of a national political campaign.
Generally, the unions have supported President Obama’s desire to change the health-care system, even if they differ on some of the particulars. But it remains to be seen whether the unions will fully back the president’s final position. For now, they seem eager to fight on his behalf against the insurance companies and to try to staunch any sense that he is losing the war for public support.
“The question for us is, will we let them make health care ‘Obama’s Waterloo’ or will we make it the next big step in our march to turn around America?” Mr. Sweeney wrote in a memo, first reported by the Huffington Post.
“The principal battleground in the campaign will be town hall meetings and other gatherings with members of Congress in their home districts,” Mr. Sweeney wrote. “We want your help to organize major union participation to counter the right-wing ‘Tea-Party Patriots’ who will try to disrupt those meetings, as they’ve been trying to do to meetings for the last month.”
He urged his members to spend the next 30 days pressing labor’s case in town hall meetings in 50 “high priority” districts, represented by Republicans and conservative Democrats alike. He also called for “election-style” communications with fellow union members and canvassing in various states.
Unions were already rallying this summer to urge members of Congress to pass a bill to make it easier for them to organize. But since health care has quickly and loudly dominated the debate, the unions are now piggy-backing the fight for health care on top of their union-organizing campaign.
Dennis Rivera, the New York labor leader and chairman of the service employees’ health care arm, was already overseeing a Washington “war room” operating nearly 24/7 to track all health-care related activity across the country. The union, representing 1 million health-care workers, has deployed 400 people to 35 states to organize rallies and telephone banks to put pressure on members of Congress not to block an overhaul of the health-care system.
Now, in “unleashing the purple people,” as Ramona Oliver, a spokeswoman for the union, put it, the union wants to “challenge the radical fringe” that is disrupting the town hall meetings. It plans to ask everyone attending the meetings to sign a pledge that they will engage in “civil” dialogue.
“We’re not trying to escalate a confrontation,” Ms. Oliver said. “Our members aren’t there to talk to the crazies. We want to ensure that a conversation takes place and that members are able to hear from their constituents.”
Does anyone expect that union involvement in the town hall meetings will lower the decibel level? After all, Mr. Sweeney’s memo was accompanied by a blistering attack from Richard Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, against the “corporate-funded mob rule,” an attack that seemed designed to fire up the unions.
Eddie Vale, a spokesman for the labor federation, said that its members intended to “hold signs, show support and act in a completely respectful way.”
“People will stand up and share their views, but we won’t be in screaming matches,” Mr. Vale said. “We have no intention of amping up the volume in this corporate-funded fight.”
Union members were already participating in town hall meetings on Thursday afternoon, he said, and so far he has heard no reports of confrontations.