May 28, 2003
Unions challenge Democratic hopefuls
LEIGH STROPE, AP Labor Writer
looking to earn crucial support
WASHINGTON--EVERYBODY IS FOR health care. So Andrew Stern, president of
the Service Employees International Union, wanted to raise the bar for
His challenge: Any presidential contender seeking to win the
endorsement of his 1.5 million-member union, the largest in the AFL-CIO,
must devise a plan to provide health insurance for all Americans and
identify funds to pay for it.
Four of the nine Democratic hopefuls have tried to meet that challenge,
with SEIU members featured prominently as some of the candidates
announced their proposals. An estimated 41 million Americans are
uninsured, and universal health care has emerged as a dominant political
issue for the first time since President Clinton's failed attempt in
That's the kind of clout that some unions command from a crowded field
that so far lacks a clear, heads-above-the-rest candidate.
Backing is crucial from SEIU and the 1.3 million-member American
Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the two largest,
fastest-growing and politically active unions in the AFL-CIO.
An overall AFL-CIO endorsement requires agreement among affiliate
unions representing two-thirds of the 13 million rank-and-file members,
and many labor leaders say that's unlikely. Only two candidates have
ever secured such an endorsement: Walter Mondale in 1984 and Al Gore in
For 2004, only Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, a longtime labor ally,
is likely to join that exclusive club, union leaders said.
"Maybe he can do it. I think he's the only one who can do it," said
AFSCME President Gerald McEntee, who also serves as the AFL-CIO's
political chairman. "But I'm still very skeptical that anybody can do
Top union leaders will meet in Chicago Aug. 5-6 for the AFL-CIO's
executive council meeting, where labor's political leanings will become
clearer. A candidates' forum also is in the works. An endorsement, if it
happens, would occur in the fall, McEntee said.
Many industrial and trades unions have been enthusiastic about
Gephardt, who opposes free trade policies that have helped shrink their
The growing service sector unions, led by SEIU and AFSCME, have been
more coy about their interests. Both Stern and McEntee say no candidate
has emerged as a favorite. They both give credit to Gephardt for being
first with an ambitious health care plan.
"He was first one out with something very bold, very comprehensive. He
set the mark," Stern said. "I feel like he's re-inflated his
About 755,000 of SEIU's 1.5 million members are health care workers.
The union also represents many low-wage and immigrant workers, such as
janitors, who can't afford health insurance and whose employers don't
"The issue of health care has, I think, become so far an issue that is
distinguishing the candidates, and the hopeful nominee from George
Bush," Stern said.
His union has posted ads in airports in New Hampshire and Iowa that
read, "Running for president? Don't forget health care." Members will
start "shadowing" candidates campaigning in those states, making sure
they get asked about health care at every public event.
For AFSCME, which has about 20 percent of its 1.3 million members in
health care, the issue ranks high. The Democrats' plans contain carrots
to appeal to the bulk of AFSCME's membership: state and local government
workers concerned about rising budget deficits.
Some offer aid to help states obtain better rates on prescription
drugs, or funds to reimburse state and local governments for providing
health insurance coverage to their employees.
Besides the people without any coverage, "you've got 61 to 62 million
people who have - to use the words of George Bush - a little itty bitty
plan that doesn't get you very far," McEntee said, a reference to
President Bush's initial complaint about the $350 billion tax bill that
he signed into law Wednesday.
Democrats see health care not only as a defining issue of the 2004
campaign but a means to score political points against Bush, whose
health care policies have centered solely on talk of revamping Medicare
to provide prescription drugs for seniors.
But they do face political risks. Voters aren't likely to digest all
the differences in the plans, and to finance the proposals, the
Democrats call for rolling back Bush's tax cuts.
Gephardt's plan would cost $247 billion and would give a refundable tax
credit to companies, requiring them to offer health insurance. Former
Vermont Gov. Howard Dean's $88 billion package would broaden coverage by
expanding existing government programs.
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's $80 billion plan also would expand
existing programs to extend coverage, and Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich
wants to create a government-run, single-payer program.