Health Activism

A speech delivered by Robert Wages, President of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW) to the October 20, 1994, Labor and Single Payer Rally in Oakland, Calif.

Our journey began in 1989 in our commitment to achieve single-payer health reform in the United States. And it was also at that same time that we began really taking about independent political action. Because we arrived at the conclusion and there is nothing mysterious about it that neither political party was representing the interests of working folks.

Healthcare was a major issue for us, for two reasons: The last major strike we had in the oil industry was over healthcare. In 1980, we took over 45,000 oil workers out in the street nationwide and got our ass kicked. The oil industry beat us about the head and body with clubs, and we lost. And we went back to work and we knew that we would have to figure out another way to skin that donkey.

So we went down the road and kept having difficulties over the healthcare issue. Our healthcare money continued to be poured down the drain. So we started having a discussion in our union about how do we elevate ourselves beyond this incessant war that we can't win against the silent bodies gathered at the other end of the bargaining table bodies whose necks you can never get your hands around to strangle them. And so decided that we had to make a commitment to a political solution because we were never going to be able to get our hands around their necks to strangle them.

We began to educate ourselves about healthcare reform. And we realized we were confronted with an insurance industry that costs about $100 billion and does not deliver one wit of healthcare and doesn't care one wit about providing healthcare to working people. And we concurred that we had to endorse single payer. Nothing else made any sense to us.

And then Bill Clinton came around and built a formidable campaign, with healthcare being one of his central issues. And then he got elected. You know, the trouble with politicians is that they get elected.

Well, Hillary was then assigned the job of heading up the healthcare task force. I participated on this task force. And some of the early discussions went like this. Hilary and the others said, "We know you're right. Single payer makes the most sense. But it is not politically viable."

I said, "It's not?" I said, "If this president were to endorse it, and if we were to fight for it in the U.S. Congress, how can you tell me this is not viable?" And they answered: "You see, it's those damned insurance companies. They have an awful lot of money; they going to throw all their resources into it." And in that sense they were right.

But if this president had endorsed single payer, and had the entire trade union leadership endorsed it which, by the way, they didn't we could have won healthcare reform. But single payer was doomed when this president decided to capitulate to the insurance industry. He decided to keep them in the mix and he tried to pull the wool over everybody's eyes Q to make it look warm and fuzzy and wonderful when you can't make that hog look good.

Then you get to the $64,000 question. How did this happen? How does it happen that we live in a society where we are mauled? Well, it's because we haven't organized a strong political movement from the grassroots up. I believe that to my absolute core.

And you had the leadership of the AFL-CIO go along with Clinton and the charade. Just to give you a glimpse of it.

You have a vice president of the AFL-CIO, a man who is the president of the Building and Construction Trades Department of the AFL-CIO, a fellow by the name of Georgine who is the CEO of an insurance company. Now what does that tell you about where we are? I am not trying to be mean-spirited or anything, but I am not a boss, and I doubt that any of these people up here are bosses.

Now that tells you a bit about the problem we have before us. And then you have to couple that with our unmitigated craziness that we're so in love with the fact that Clinton got elected that we have to be trottin' over for tea and crumpets at his beck and call while he kicks our ass on every major issue of the day. And we are told: "We don't want to offend him. We have to work through this process."

We had formidable forces on board in the trade union movement for single payer. They could have really agitated and forced some hands here. But they weren't enough, because we were not all together. And all Clinton had to do was play his bullshit game of divide and conquer, tell everyone what they wanted to hear, promise everyone a little piece of something .Q but, of course, we'll channel everything through the insurance industry, and that's the story.

And it doesn't just happen on healthcare. It happens on virtually everything that means anything to people like us. It happens on every major issue: It happened on striker replacement. It happened on labor-law reform. And now we are being told that the new workplace of the future, through labor- management cooperation and other such baloney, is going to save us because we are going to be more productive and more effecient. And that is all embraced by this administration because the Clinton administration feels it is politically viable to push it forward, because it has the support of management.

So what are we going to do to combat all this? I am convinced that one of the reasons the trade union movement organized 35% or 40% of the workforce in the the 1940s and '50s is that we were prepared to get people's faces out in the street.

If you look back and read your history, if you have any sense of history, you know that to be true. I am also convinced that if we were to put a quarter of a million people, or a half million people, out in the streets, that we could stop major social oppression. This society doesn't work until people are in the streets for any kind of social change.

You think, for example, that the New Deal came about because Franklin Roosevelt was a progressive. You had people occupying auto plants. You had the auto workers sitting down in Flint. You had the oil workers tying up refineries on the Gulf Coast, not shipping oil. And every other industrial union stopped. Roosevelt's response, in the midst of a crisis, was to respond with change.

The trade union movement has to be about making a crisis. That has to be our call. We have to have the leadership and vision to start carving out these issues.

Your fight here in California for Prop 186 is just the beginning of a journey, whether you win or you don't win, to create a movement that is progressive, that addresses social change.

I am proud of the trade union movement in California for coming together to support Prop 186, because we sure don't have that much togetherness among the national AFL-CIO leadership and unions back in Washington. I know a lot of international presidents who can talk the talk, but I know damned few of them who can walk the walk.

We have to put aside our provincial interests. We have to build a social movement that is responsive to all the problems in society. If we're to beat back the corporatist agenda, we have to get in the streets and raise hell. Because if we don't, they're going to roll right over us like a steamroller.

This speech was published by The Organizer

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