News & Events

Obama, disgruntled labor chiefs discuss health care overhaul

Leaders not keen on Senate version

By Alec MacGillis, Washington Post  |  January 12, 2010

WASHINGTON – President Obama sought yesterday to assuage organized labor’s misgivings about the health care overhaul, even as several key union leaders warned the bill’s final outlines could dampen their enthusiasm for the Democratic ticket in this year’s elections.

Obama invited 10 labor leaders to the White House to discuss the talks aimed at reconciling the Senate and House bills, which are not heading in organized labor’s direction in the three areas it had identified as priorities.

The final bill will not include the House’s government-run insurance plan, or “public option;’’ it will probably include the Senate’s new tax on high-cost health plans that could affect many union members, and its penalties for employers who do not provide insurance coverage will probably be closer to the more lenient terms in the Senate bill.

Hours before the meeting, AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka said in a hard-edged speech at the National Press Club that discontent with the final bill, when combined with a general perception that Obama and Congress have been insufficiently populist in responding to the recession and financial crisis, could demoralize his members. The risk, he said, was a replay of the Democratic blowout in the 1994 elections, when, after the passage of NAFTA and other disappointments to unions, “there was no way to persuade enough working Americans to go to the polls when they couldn’t tell the difference between the two parties. Now, more than ever, we need the boldness and the clarity we saw in our president during the campaign in 2008.’’

Trumka stopped short of his September threat that the AFL-CIO might not support the final bill – after all, he said, labor has been seeking health care reform for decades. But individual members could sit on their hands. “A bad bill could have that kind of effect,’’ he told reporters. “People could stay home. It could suppress votes.’’

Unions prefer the House approach, an income tax surcharge on families earning more than $1 million.