Labor Chief to Democratic Opponents of a Public Option: ‘Do So at Your Peril’

By Gorman Gorman

Sep 1, 2009 4:12pm

As the White House spends the last few days of the recess hammering out a post Labor Day strategy on health care — Will the President lay out his own plan as advised by Bob Dole? Will he launch an all out battle for the public option (even if it is going to lose) as mused about by James Carville? Or is it time for a tactical retreat? — my colleague Teddy Davis reports that Big Labor is not going to make that kind of adjustment easy:

The incoming president of the AFL-CIO threw down the gauntlet Tuesday, warning fellow Democrats to get behind the creation of a government insurance option or face political "peril" in 2010.

"We will continue to push it and say to them: 'Do so at your peril," AFL-CIO secretary treasurer Richard Trumka told ABC News. "If you're not willing to do what you promised to do, you'll have a tough time convincing our members at election time."

Asked to elaborate on what kind of "peril" these Democrats would face, Trumka added, "We're going to tell our members the truth: 'Who stood with them. Who stood for health insurance reform. Who wanted to make the insurance companies happy versus those who wanted to make Americans healthy. And at election time, I think it will be a tough sell for any politician who is a part of killing health insurance reform to get the support of working Americans."

Trumka's remarks, which were made during a pre-Labor Day briefing in Washington, D.C., came exactly two weeks before President Barack Obama is slated to address the AFL-CIO on Sept. 15 at its annual convention in Pittsburgh, Pa. Trumka is expected to be chosen as the labor federation's new president on Sept. 16.

He will succeed John Sweeney who is stepping down after 15 years at the helm.

Trumka said that a public insurance option is one of three "absolute musts" for the AFL-CIO.

"It's an absolute must," said Trumka when asked if the AFL-CIO could compromise on the issue. "We won't support the bill if it doesn't have a public option in it."

"There are three absolute musts," he added. "You have to have an employer mandate; you can't tax the benefits of workers to pay for it; and it has to have a public option. Otherwise, you don't get health insurance reform, you don't break the stranglehold of the insurance companies, and the system goes on and on and on as it has. Costs go up, quality of care goes down."

Asked if that means that the AFL-CIO was prepared to work against a bill that does not include a public option, Trumka sidestepped the question, saying, "That means we won't support the bill if it doesn't' have a public option."

Trumka dismissed the possibility that co-ops could be an acceptable compromise. 

"The only other thing we have heard are co-ops which are too weak, not ready for prime time," said Trumka.

In a post-briefing interview with ABC News, he refrained from stating a position on whether a "public option with a trigger" could be an acceptable compromise.

A public option with a trigger would not come into effect right away. Instead, it would only come into existence after a period of time if private insurance companies did not hold costs in check.

While signaling his willingness to pressure fellow Democrats on health-care reform, Trumka said that President Obama's allies have found themselves in this position because the GOP has been almost entirely unified in its opposition to Democratic proposals for comprehensive health-care reform.

"The Republicans have said 'no' to everything and they still try to pretend that they are bipartisan," said Trumka. "Their program is: 'trust the insurance companies and they will do what's right.'"

Sweeney, the outgoing AFL-CIO president, acknowledged that Obama supporters were out-organized at the start of the August recess.

"We were a little slow in getting into those town-hall meetings," said Sweeney in an interview. "But we are now far outnumbering opponents of reform."

Despite the widespread television coverage that opponents of health-care reform have received, Sweeney expressed confidence that Democrats would ultimately rally behind a public option.

"We're not going to let up," Sweeney told ABC News.

ABC News' Elizabeth Gorman contributed to this report.

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