Andy Stern: 'We need to make ourselves more involved in these people's career planning'
In the final days of the health-care reform effort, organized labor has stepped up as the bill's most able enforcer, threatening primary challenges against recalcitrant Democrats and ignoring substantive setbacks (like the excise tax) in their push to get the bill over the finish line. Earlier today I spoke with Andy Stern, who heads the Service Employees International Union, one of America's largest unions and unquestionably the one that's been most engaged and influential on health-care reform.
It's been fascinating watching the left come together this week. Both the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, despite having to swallow a strengthening of the excise tax, are aggressively lobbying for the bill's passage. Dennis Kucinich decided to support the legislation.
Dennis was particularly significant and symbolic. It really said something to people who've been arguing that this bill is not a step forward and will take us away from progressive reform. No one has better credentials than Kucinich. There are differences of opinion here and Kucinich was the only one in Congress able to reassure people in the progressive flank that they're covered, that they won't be called unprogressive for supporting this.
In fact, I was on a radio show earlier and a called attacked me from the left for supporting the bill. And I said, "sir, any time I'm on the same side as Kucinich and the opposite side from the insurance industry, I feel pretty good."
What has SEIU been doing over the past week or two? Has the energy been in negotiating the final text of the bill? Organizing around it?
You can't get through to a congressional office right now. We're on mail, phone, member meetings in the field, letters to the editor. Our top leaders have been on reminding these Congress people, like [Rep. Jason] Altmire, that when they first came into our office because they were running and wanted our support, they said they were running for Congress because they wanted to fix health care. We're reminding them that they were right then and the time is now. Or [Rep. Bill] Foster, who we ran a significant independent expenditure for, we're telling him what it is our workers thought they were working for him for.
I have never seen our members and our leaders on the phones like this. We had members who worked three to six months on these people's campaigns. They were there when they first ran for office. We've been essential to how they got to where they are. And we're privileged that we get face time with them.
In order to hit the deficit targets in the reconciliation bill, Democrats made the excise tax stronger by indexing it to inflation rather than inflation plus one percentage point. How did that affect your support?
I appreciate that many people have incredibly serious policy issues they're dealing with, whether you're dealing with immigration issues or facilities in your district. We've been doing that, but we appreciate that none of it matters if we don't pass the bill. We've spent a certain amount of time on policy but it hasn't prevented us from being all-out, full-time supporters.
The level of mobilization here at the end has surprised me. Moral suasion is pretty common in these campaign, but I've never seen this many public threats of primary challenges.
The last time it was threatened -- and it was more hollow then -- was NAFTA. But the third rail that's being discussed today is whether if you have two candidates, a Democrat and a Republican who are both representing insurers, whether you'd run a candidate representing reform. That line has never been crossed by major groups like unions. But we're crossing it now.
How much of the labor movement's urgency is driven by their history of almost passing health-care reform, only to see it perish towards the end?
It's based on a deep understanding of that. But it's also that if Democrats can't rally to do this, then there's an incredible feeling of frustration that for all the work our members did to build these majorities, that it didn't work. We had 60 votes and we had to make major changes in the bill due to defections, and now in the House we're scurrying around looking for votes despite having more than 37 votes as cushion. There's the feeling that there hasn't been enough accountability, that we're being taken for granted. If careers, rather than issues, drive the decision making, then we need to make ourselves more involved in these people's career planning.
Do you think the bill will pass?
There are lots of positive signs. There are a number of people we've talked to who, now that they've seen the numbers, feel they have the information. The numbers are improving every day. We're not stalled.
And what happens if the bill passes? Republicans are talking about running on repeal. Is there much discussion of a post-passage political strategy?
People are very much talking about it. It'll be helped by which parts of the bill go into effect immediately. It's hard to talk about things that'll happen in 2019. But if you can say to people that if your kid is 26 years old, you can keep him on your insurance plan? Or there are no more lifetime caps? They get that. They get that someone may actually stop these insurance companies.
The bill isn't law yet, but while I have you on the phone, what have been the lessons of this effort?
First, the longer you wait, the harder it gets and the worse it gets. Time for deliberation is appropriate, but indecision and delay are counterproductive to getting something done. The choices don't get easier over time. They get harder.
Second, people have to decide whether people in the same party will use procedural tricks to trip up their teammates. Or whether parties, particularly the Democratic Party, appreciates that the special deals and earmarks that might traditionally have been part of the process no longer work. Politicians used to bring kickbacks home to their district, but now people think the system is corrupt.
Governing honestly and openly and voting based on what's good for the country rather than for your election actually means something right now. It's really dangerous right now to be seen being corrupt in a corrupt system. Ben Nelson used to look like an honorable person in a corrupt system. Then he flipped to looking like one of the corruptors.
Photo credit: David Scull/Bloomberg News
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