Labor's Split Over the Health Care Bill

| Wed Mar. 17, 2010 12:05 PM EDT

As the health care debate crawls toward the finish line, labor unions have issued a rallying cry to help Democrats make the final push to pass the bill. But the labor movement is still divided over whether to support the bill—a split that could ultimately hold back Democratic efforts to sell the legislation to the public. The AFL-CIO, for instance, has expressed support for health reform and participated in big pro-reform rallies last week, and  some of its local affliates will soon unleash ads targeting still-wavering "Stupak Democrats." But the massive union hasn't formally endorsed the health care effort, because some of its members "are still irked" about the bill, as the Wall Street Journal reports today:

Amid deep divisions among its member unions, the AFL-CIO officially remains uncommitted..."We are opposing this bill with every last breath in us," said International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers President Thomas Buffenbarger, who sits on the AFL-CIO's executive council and represents 670,000 members. He stressed that the union could live with the more liberal bill previously passed by the House, but that it didn't like aspects of the Senate bill that the House is now being asked to adopt with some changes.

Meanwhile, while some of the AFL-CIO's member unions are attacking the bill, other labor giants are throwing all their weight behind it. AFSCME, which represents public employees, has threatened to "take out" Democrats who vote against health care reform. And the SEIU is already running ads against Rep. Mike McMahon in upstate New York for his opposition to the bill, with SEIU President Andy Stern vocally backing the White House's plan in recent days.

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The AFL-CIO, on the other hand, still hasn't officially endorsed the bill. "We are awaiting the final legislation from Congress," AFL-CIO press secretary told Mother Jones. "But we are continuing to lobby members of Congress in order to improve the bill for working families." If the AFL-CIO continues to send such mixed messages on health care reform, it could continue to hold back the Democrats this year. If the legislation actually passes, Democrats are banking on it to revive their electoral prospects in 2010. They'll need all the help they can get from their staunchest allies to build broad support for the legislation, which is still polling negatively among 48 percent of the public.

Labor unions will be key to that push, not only through campaign donations and ads, but also in convincing their own members that the Democrats responsible for health care are worth championing at the polls. And as one of the biggest unions, with some 11.5 million members, the AFL-CIO could play a make-or-break role. In the Massachusetts Senate race this year, AFL-CIO households helped send Republican Scott Brown to victory, supporting him 49 percent to 46 percent over Martha Coakley, despite the union's endorsement of the Democrat. Such union households may be a similarly decisive voting bloc in key races in places like Pennsylvania and Ohio—but to what end will depend on whether the AFL-CIO can convince its members that the party's signature legislative effort is worth championing.

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