Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

As Obama Speech Fires Up Base, Insurance CEOs Emerge As New ‘Villains’

September 15th, 2009 | Art Levine

(The following post is part of our Taking Back Labor Day blog series. Many people view Labor Day as just another day off from work, the end of summer, or a fine day for a barbecue. We think that it’s a holiday with a rich history, and an excellent occasion to examine what workers, and workers rights activism, means to this country. Our Taking Back Labor Day posts in September will do that, from a variety of perspectives, and we hope you’ll tune in and join the discussion!)

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President Obama’s well-received health reform speech not only boosted public support for reform, but helped fire up much of the progressive base—despite his failing to draw a firm line in the sand on the public option.  

Yet as Mike Lux, co-director and CEO of Progressive Strategies, pointed out Thursday on the Web radio show I co-host, “The D’Antoni and Levine Show,” Obama accomplished a key goal of inspiring progressives, including influential labor leaders, to push harder for reform—while starting to recapture the “narrative” about healthcare back from the right-wing.

Lux observed: “In order to get big pieces of legislation passed, you have to have people who are pumped, ready to go, fired up, willing to knock on doors. He was having trouble generating that. People were confused and down in the mouth. But the speech did what he needed to do and did it in a big way.

More sparks for a reform drive are expected to start this weekend, when the AFL-CIO begins its convention, and Obama appears before them next week, following up on his fiery Labor Day rally appearance and Wednesday’s congressional speech.

Before the president’s address to Congress, Lux added, “we never really had control of the narrative. Obama, for all his eloquence, had trouble laying out a story of what was wrong and why he wanted it changed. In order to tell a compelling story, you have to tell who the villains are, and he’s not very good at that. We never really had a story being told that people could latch on to, understand and get excited about.”

“We now have that,” Lux said on Thursday about the President’s messaging. “Last night, he went after insurance companies in a big way, and went after people lying about the plan, and called them out in a big way. And now have a narrative we can take to people.”

(Of course, long before the speech, many activists in the union movement have been working hard for healthcare reform — an issue that’s now become a legislative priority ahead of the Employee Free Choice Act — but the speech can reignite their fervor while broadening the range of people involved in grass-roots activism.)

Meanwhile, insurance industry executives continue to play their part as villains: a new report by the California Nurses Association shows that up to 40 percent of claims are denied in California insurance companies, making those profit-driven bureaucrats part of the real “death panels.” On Amy Goodman’s Democracy Now! show this week, she highlighted the nursing association report and featured an interview with a mother, Hilda Sarkisyan, whose daughter died after she was initially denied a liver transplant by CIGNA, which has a 33-percent claim rejection rate so far this year. After a massive public campaign, the insurance company finally relented, but it was too late:

HILDA SARKISYAN: Well, we miss her. We don’t have our beautiful daughter with us anymore. And CIGNA is doing this every day, every day. And that’s why I’m out there to help other families to stop them. It’s not only CIGNA; it’s all the insurance industry, that they are placing profit before patient, and it’s not right…You know, they should not enforce the care of the people to their deep pockets. It’s all about their pocket, all about the CEO, how much he makes. I miss my daughter. I had a beautiful, perfect daughter. I don’t have her anymore. I don’t.

AMY GOODMAN: Hilda, describe what happened to your daughter.

HILDA SARKISYAN: Well, we had insurance. We were covered. We thought we had insurance. So it’s like having insurance and not having insurance is the same thing. People who have insurance and don’t have it, they get the same care. But having insurance and knowing that you do have it, and you are recommended to a certain hospital, because the insurance company only pays if you go to that hospital, you go to that hospital, which in our case was UCLA. We were transferred there. By the way, that’s our fourth hospital within, I would say, three years, because they were jumping us around. And finally, you go there. My son gave her the perfect bone marrow transplant, perfect match. And my daughter needed a liver transplant. And so many requests, so many requests, and they were—the doctors were denied. We were denied, until the California Nurses Association stepped in, helped us out.

We had to get out and go to their headquarters in Glendale, make a scene with our family, the Armenian Youth Federation, our church. Why do we have to do that? I’m a mother who should have been next to my daughter. Only if I knew she was going to die that same day, you think I would have that energy to go out there and do that? I could have been holding my daughter’s hand and praying with her. This is not right.

Fueled by such outrages, it’s welcome news for advocates of reform that labor leaders were, by and large, cheered by the president’s speech, which included his toughest attacks yet on insurers. The labor leaders’ enthusiasm can help rally the union movement’s ground troops to do even more work to promote the legislation. For instance, Gerald McEntee the president of a leading public employees union, the 1.6 million-member AFSCME, said:

With his speech to Congress last night, President Obama re-energized the forces for reform and has set a clear path for victory. We’re going to do our part and hold Congress accountable – the time has come for Congress to put people above profits and enact real health care reform. We’re also going to pull out all the stops to take on the insurance industry. The President’s right – ‘The time for games has passed – now is the season for action.’

President Obama made clear his support of a public option, which is just that – an option that will help improve quality, lower costs and keep the insurance companies in check.

With an estimated 150,000 workers attending events, Labor Day turnout for the AFL-CIO alone showed that unions are starting to push back hard against the right-wing Tea Baggers, whose bullying tactics dominated early August news coverage. These union members and allies are energized by a desire to fight for reform and battle the insurance industry. As the AFL-CIO Now blog reported:

Labor Day marches and rallies capped off more than a month of an incredible union member mobilization to move the health care reform debate beyond the screaming diatribes and disruptive tactics by opponents that marred the start of the congressional recess.

During the weekend, some 150,000 union members turned out for rallies, parades and picnics that not only celebrated the workers’ holiday, but showed broad support for comprehensive health care reform.

Those events followed the more than 400 August town hall meetings, health care forums and other events where more than 24,000 union members spoke up for health care and wrote letters, made phone calls and went door to door to educate their neighbors.

The President’s speech, Mike Lux said, can help boost such activism and add pressure to pass meaningful legislation. That’s in part because the speech added confidence to progressives and  Democrats in Congress who have been engulfed by what he calls the “culture of caution” and fear created by the onslaught of the right-wing noise machine. He said, “Momentum is really a key. Psychologically,  when people are confident and not on the defensive, they feel like something is going be done and they want to be part of it.” As a result, Lux declared,”People are willing more to deal [with shaping the legislation.]“          

And as the author of the important book, The Progressive Revolution, he pointed out how grassroots activism around the focused goal of medical care for seniors combined with the political head-knocking skills of LBJ to deliver Medicare.

The challenge is even tougher now to pass broader health reform than it was to win Medicare in 1965, but he’s hopeful that President Obama will show the toughness needed to get the job done—and that in turn will spur more reform in other key arenas.

Lux says, “If we can break through on healthcare and beat the insurance industries, it strengthens us against big banks and big energy companies.”

About the Author: Art Levine is a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly who has also written for The American Prospect, Alternet, In These Times, Salon, The New Republic, The Atlantic and numerous other publications. He’s written investigative articles on unionbusting and other corporate abuses, and recently completed Cornell University’s Strategic Corporate Research summer program. He blogs regularly for Huffington Post, and co-hosts a weekly Blog Talk Radio show, “The D’Antoni and Levine Show,” every Thursday at 5:30 p.m. ET.


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