National Press Club

AFL-CIO President Says Courage Missing in Health Care Debate

January 12, 2010 | By Andrew Kreig |

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The AFL-CIO's new president, Richard Trumka, urged government officials to put far greater priority in coming weeks on improving the nation’s economy in such areas as jobs, worker rights and health care.

"This is a moment that cries out for political courage, but it is not much in evidence," he said at a Jan. 11 Luncheon.

Trumka, a past president of the United Mine Workers of America, succeeded longtime AFL-CIO President John Sweeney in September as the top executive of the country's largest labor organization.

Trumka summarized his travels since Jan. 1 to talk to working Americans about their concerns.

"Everywhere I went," Trumka said, "people asked me, 'Why do so many of the people we elect seem to care only about Wall Street? Why is helping banks a matter of urgency, but unemployment is something we just have to live with?'

"I came away shaken by the sense that the very things that make America great are in danger," he said. "What makes us unique among nations is this: In America, working people are the middle class.…But a generation of destructive, greed-driven economic policies has eroded that progress and now threatens our very identity as a nation."

The union has announced a five-point program to create more than 4 million jobs with what he called "a crucial alliance of the middle class and the poor" to achieve legislative victories.

But he singled out health care as an issue that "drives a wedge between the middle class and the poor" by Senate proposals to pay for expanded insurance by taxing employee health care plans. "Most of the 31 million insured employees who would be hit by the excise tax are not union members," he said.

"The tax on benefits in the Senate bill pits working Americans who need health care for their families against working Americans struggling to keep health care for their families," he said. "This is a policy designed to benefit elites — in this case, insurers, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and irresponsible employers– at the expense of the broader public."

Trumka said Democrats are in danger of losing the majority it holds in the House, just as the party did in 1994.

"Politicians who think that working people have it too good — too much health care, too much Social Security and Medicare, too much power on the job — are inviting a repeat of 1994," he said.

During Q&A, he declined to discuss specifics about his meeting with President Obama later in the afternoon except to say, "We'll be talking about health care." He did say that the discussion would be "among friends."

In response to a related question, Trumka said, "We're not going to accept a bad bill." Obama and other Democratic leaders face an almost united Republican opposition and increasing criticism from Democrats, including progressives and union members.

Trumka's prepared speech was nearly seven pages long. Club President Donna Leinwand asked him to wrap up at about 1:35 p.m. to stay on the Club’s usual timetable enabling audience questions and a luncheon end by 2 p.m.

Trumka declined, saying, "Working people have been waiting 30 years for this."

The last sentences of his prepared speech were a warning to political leaders to choose between working for the general public or "the profits of insurance companies, speculators and outsourcers.""There is no middle ground," Trumka concluded. "Working America is waiting for an answer. We are in a 'show me' kind of mood, and time is running out."