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Union members pack Obama’s town halls
GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. | Andrew Carillo and Melissa McCollister cheered loudly from near the back row of the Central High School gymnasium as President Obama stepped on stage to make his pitch for health care reform.
The two organizers for the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 7 proudly wore their union T-shirts, and boisterously supported the president because of what they think his initiative will do for the 25,000 grocery stockers, meatpackers and warehouse workers that they represent.
“We have to negotiate for health care every time a contract comes up,” said Mr. Carillo, 24, a union employee. “Year after year, it just gets more and more expensive.”
Members of the nation’s labor unions have made up a hefty segment of the audiences that flocked to town halls Mr. Obama held in the past week, and they have played an even larger role in a nationwide campaign for an insurance overhaul. Financially, and with boots on the ground, unions have become the backbone of the president’s effort.
Last week, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) was part of a group, largely funded by the pharmaceutical industry’s lobby, that launched $12 million in television ads to support the president’s health care push, and the coalition Americans for Stable Quality Care could spend tens of millions of dollars more this fall.
The AFL-CIO, the American Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees are among the partners in another group, Health Care for America Now, which has committed millions more dollars to advertising that is running now in a half-dozen states.
But money is only part of the equation; the most potent contribution from labor has been its people. Last month, opponents of the president’s health care efforts began protesting, at times vociferously, as members of Congress convened town-hall meetings in their districts.
The Obama administration decried the opposition movement as a cynical, fake grass-roots campaign manufactured by the insurance industry to undermine his effort. To respond meant galvanizing a movement of his own. That began to take shape, at least visibly, when AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney sent an Aug. 6 memo to union officers across the country to mobilize.
“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. “August will tell!”
Mr. Sweeney’s memo called on members to mobilize during Congress’ August recess.
“We wanted them to show up at town halls both for members of Congress who are on the fence, but also for members who are supportive of reform,” AFL-CIO spokeswoman Amaya Tune said. “We wanted them at the district offices, meeting with members of Congress and communicating with other union members to tell them what’s involved in health care reform.”
The union organization also began a rapid-response program for town-hall meetings, sending out e-mail alerts to members who live in ZIP codes near where town halls are planned, urging them to attend. Phone banks were set up for members to put out calls explaining why they think the president’s initiative is needed.
Since the union pushback began more than a week ago, there have been scuffles between activists on both sides of the issue outside at least two town-hall meetings, in St. Louis and in Tampa, Fla. In the St. Louis meeting, widely circulated video footage shows conservative counterprotester Kenneth Gladney lying on the street surrounded by SEIU members. He later told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he sought hospital treatment.
Labor has much at stake in the health care debate unfolding in Washington, said Richard Berman, a food-industry lobbyist who has battled the unions on Capitol Hill.
“SEIU is leading the charge for health care because they stand to make major gains in unionizing the entire system,” Mr. Berman said. “They might try to inject some pro-union requirements into the bill.”
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