Medicare for All Activists Press Democrats

Joe Maniscalco

By JOE MANISCALCO July 30, 2021 (dcreport.org)

Actress Susan Sarandon and activist Erobos Abzu Lamashtu were among the marchers who gathered at the locked Bronx office of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. (Joe Maniscalco)

Advocates Urge Ocasio-Cortez and Other Progressives to Support Single-Payer Healthcare

With Covid spiking again and  deaths topping 610,000, pro-Medicare for All marchers hoping to light a fire under passive House progressives could have used a lot of labor muscle when they took to the streets in 50 American cities this past weekend.

The marchers demanded legislative action. They didn’t get it.

The reason, according to People’s Party head Nick Brana, is organized labor’s continuing blind fealty to the Democratic Party and duopoly politics.

“Organized labor is the biggest institutional force that serves working people — they should be on the front lines,” Brana said outside the Bronx office of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) on July 26.

The idea was to cap off Saturday afternoon’s M4M4All (March for Medicare for All) nationwide actions by hand-delivering a petition and a shortlist of Medicare for All demands to anyone who might answer AOC’s door. But a vacant office and locked roll down gates put the kibosh on that plan. 

Fear Corporate Dominance

Marchers are pressuring Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives in Congress to step up the fight for single-payer because they fear the Democratic Party establishment is succeeding in subverting them to its corporate-dominated will. 

Or, as Brana says, “What good does it do to have representatives in office who don’t take corporate money if they’re listening to the politicians that do?”

Ocasio-Cortez chose to stump for congressional hopeful Nina Turner in Ohio on July 24. M4M4All organizers don’t necessarily mind, but they say she could have tweeted support for their efforts.  

The way Brana sees it, trade unionists across the country should not only be joining efforts to help force a vote on Medicare for All, they really should be leading the way.

“[Labor] should be organizing actions like these because their own members are the ones that suffer,” Brana said. “Their own workers are the ones that suffer when they have to contend with employer-based [healthcare] plans. That means that the power of labor, the power of workers is diminished — and that diminishes the power of unions themselves.”

The AFL-CIO — a federation of 56 national and international labor unions representing some 12.5 million active and retired workers — in 2017 officially called for moving expeditiously toward a single-payer Medicare for All system as a “core goal.”

New York Legislature Balks

But when the Democrat-controlled New York State Legislature advanced a single-payer measure earlier this year, with more than 30 co-sponsors in the Senate, the United Federation of Teachers [UFT] led by Michael Mulgrew and other New York City public sector unions stepped in to help make sure it didn’t get to a vote.

“Why hasn’t the New York State Legislature passed the New York Health Act yet,” asked New York State Green Party ‘s Gloria Mattera outside City Hall Park on July 24. “People want that, some of our elected officials have lobbied for it, in fact. But the two leaders — [Assembly Speaker Carl] Heastie and [Senate Majority Leader and President Pro Tempore] Andrea Stewart-Cousins wouldn’t even let it come to a vote.

“Will [Governor] Andrew Cuomo champion a single-payer system in the State of New York? No — he champions himself just like he did during the pandemic.”

Edwin DeJesus, an M4M4All organizer and independent candidate for city council running on the Green Party line in NYC’s 22nd District, attributes a lot of this past weekend’s poor union showing to the enduring allegiances certain labor leaders have to Democratic Party power players. 

“A lot of it, I think, has to do with the fact that union leaders who have ties to certain political leaders [who are owned by corporate interests] are all in that cycle of ‘Let’s maintain the status quo because that’s what’s keeping us in power’,” DeJesus says.

“That’s just something we’re going to have to combat with relentless education and letting union members know…stand up for what you believe in…don’t necessarily feel you have to be silent because leadership has a certain opinion on something.”

Brana, Bernie Sanders’ national political outreach coordinator during the Vermont senator’s 2016 presidential bid, says that sinking unionization rates that have dipped from 35-percent to about 10-percent over the years, demands that organized labor “objectively reevaluate its relationship” with the Democratic Party. 

“If you told any corporation that their success, [their] revenue, would be cut to a third — and then you told them that deal’s working out for you — they would tell you get the hell out of here. And that’s exactly what labor needs to tell the Democratic Party,” he said. 

DeJesus concedes that an avalanche of online political rancor and hate directed at M4M4All organizers disrupted outreach efforts to labor unions — at least in New York City. 

Democratic Resistance

Democratic Party acolytes have been on the attack since last December, when the People’s Party, Greens and other allies rallied behind a grassroots effort to convince House progressives to leverage their vote for Speaker Nancy Pelosi and force a vote on Medicare for All. 

“Stop being ablest and privileged in telling me what I’m allowed to be pissed at,” M4M4All National Organizer Savage Joy told a group of about 30 supporters in the Bronx. “I am holding people accountable, I am not calling names, I am not insulting. I am saying you made a promise. You are not even doing the bear minimum of Tweeting Medicare for All —that is unacceptable.”

Activist Susan Sarandon urged Ocasio-Cortez to get “creative” and to reject the duopoly’s tired old game of incrementalism. 

“Do not play the game they’ve asked you to play because the only way things are gonna change is from the bottom up,” the Academy Award winner said. “We’ve seen that the top does not care. They have their lobbyists from insurance and pharmaceutical [companies] and that’s the bottom line. You have to show up and get other people to show up. It’s great to have a rock star from New York that’s there who has five million [Twitter] followers — but let’s use those people to our advantage.”

Ocasio-Cortez’s office has not responded to requests for comment. 

Paula Jean Swearengin, the coal miner’s daughter from West Virginia who challenged Democratic Party elites Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito for their Senate seats, recently left the Democratic Party to join the People’s Party.

“A lot of unions across the country have supported Medicare for All, even the UMWA outside of West Virginia,” Swearengin said on Monday. “I’m here to continue that fight…and carry on legacy of those who fought for union rights.”

March for Medicare for All activists know all too well that it’s been 80 years since FDR rolled out the “Economic Bill of Rights” and nearly 60 years since JFK started talking about Medicare

“I believe that labor needs to return to its militant roots of striking,” Brana continued under a blistering Bronx sun. “Wildcat striking, the teachers’ strikes in West Virginia where Paula Jean is from — that’s the model. The victories that were won in the 1930s — they were won because workers were radical, they were militant and they fought back. They didn’t wait, necessarily, for even the union to tell them to do it. They self-organized and fought back — and that’s what we need more of.”

Writer

  • Joe Maniscalco Joe Maniscalco is a journalist and freelance writer based in New York City. His work has appeared in a variety of news outlets ranging from the NewYorkPost.com to Alternet.org. He’s spent the last decade covering workplace justice issues, the American Labor Movement and steadfastly avoiding well-paid corporate media gigs.
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