Unions and Obamacare, Part 2: How Unions Got Obamacare Passed
Unions were at the forefront in the desperate campaign for Obamacare.
The organization “Health Care for America Now!” included some 1,030 organizations and was the principal coalition working to pass the program. HCAN’s 20-member steering committee included the AFL-CIO, the Communication Workers of America, the teachers’ unions (both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers), the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), the United Auto Workers (UAW), and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), along with Working America, an AFL-CIO front group.
Taking the lead in organizing unions and their allies for Obamacare was Dennis Rivera. Rivera was the longtime head of the nation’s largest union local—Local 1199 (SEIU Healthcare Workers East)—until he left that job in 2007 to run SEIU’s national effort to organize healthcare workers. In his new position, he was working for Andy Stern, the SEIU president who would later be the most frequent visitor to the White House in the early days of the Obama administration. Back then, in 2007, Stern said Rivera was perfect as chair of SEIU Healthcare because “He’s tough, smart, and compassionate, just what’s needed to transform healthcare in this country. At this moment in history, as the winds of change are blowing toward fundamental healthcare reform, and as SEIU redoubles its efforts to fix our broken healthcare system, Dennis’ decision to shift his focus to the national effort couldn’t come at a better time.”
Stern was eerily prophetic. Rivera was the perfect person to lead the change. Rivera’s specialty at Local 1199 was forming alliances with businesses and hospitals, as well as spending heavily on campaigns that supported his political friends and punished his political enemies. He was close to the leading Democrats in New York (and served on the transition team for Gov. Elliot Spitzer in 2006-2007), but he also took advantage of splits within GOP ranks, partnering with Gov. George Pataki and other Republicans who had big business ties. His skill at building anti-taxpayer coalitions would prove invaluable to the Obamacare effort.
In June 2009, shortly after President Obama took office, the pro-Obamacare “Kaiser Health News” reported that “Unions have created a formidable political machine for the battle on health care, one that they’re already begun to deploy to support their positions and undercut those they oppose. They say they’re ready to spend $80 million.”
The unions’ greatest worry was that they would spark a backlash among voters, such as the backlash against Hillary Clinton’s healthcare plan that, in 1994, gave Republicans control of Congress for the first time in 40 years. Said Len Nichols of the left-wing New America Foundation: The unions understand “that if Democrats fail, last time we got Gingrich, this time we could get Limbaugh.”
(The worriers were right: The backlash against Obamacare gave Republicans, in 2010, their best election in 60-80 years, but by then the program had already become law.)
Forewarned and forearmed, prepared for perhaps the key political battle of their lifetimes, the pro-Obamacare unions and their allies set up their “Health Care for America Now!” campaign on Washington’s K Street, the infamous home for special-interest lobbyists. The operation was funded by MoveOn.org and other organizations funded by billionaire George Soros, and by Soros-connected donors such as the Atlantic Philanthropies, Peter Lewis of Progressive Insurance, and Herb and Marion Sandler. The tax disclaimer for HCAN stated: “HCAN is related to Health Care for America Education Fund, a project of the Tides Center, a section 501(c)(3) public charity.” On the board of the Tides Center was ACORN founder Wade Rathke .
During the campaign for Obamacare, SEIU’s Dennis Rivera took the lead in forming alliances with industries that hoped to profit from the new system directly (health insurance, non-doctor-owned hospitals, the pharmaceutical industry) and indirectly (companies like Walmart that hoped to dump their employees’ healthcare costs onto the taxpayer). Rivera also took advantage of the can’t-we-all-just-get-along weariness of opponents of nationalized healthcare. Many of them had been persuaded by the major news media that President Obama and the Democrats and their healthcare-rationing ideas represented the wave of the future; others wanted a place at the negotiating table as the nation’s healthcare resources were divvied up. In 2009, Crain’s New York Business reported:
Dennis Rivera, the indomitable labor leader, was on Capitol Hill in late June to persuade members of a powerful House committee to include a public insurance option in its massive overhaul of the nation’s health care system. Karen Ignagni , perhaps the most feared lobbyist on the Hill, was there to sway the lawmakers in the opposite direction. Yet during a break in the hearing, Ms. Ignagni—whose group of insurers served up the “Harry and Louise” ads that helped kill the Clinton health care reform effort—walked over to Mr. Rivera, greeted him with a warm embrace and asked to meet the following week. . . .
has exported his mastery of transactional politics to the Beltway, appealing equally to would-be adversaries’ self-interest and their fears to lure them to the table. . . . As chairman of the Service Employees International Union’s health care division, he’s brought together groups including insurers, drugmakers and doctors—all of whom defeated previous attempts at reform. In a nation grown weary of confrontational politics, Mr. Rivera’s brand of bridge-building has injected civility into a complex process, forging a path to health care reform that has eluded Washington for decades.
Rivera, as the healthcare chief of the union most closely connected to President Obama, blurred the lines between his union and the Obama Administration. “To some degree, Dennis is an independent actor, and to some degree, he’s working for the White House,” said a senior vice president of a medical technology group. “That played into making the process a success and people wanting to get involved. It’s not too great to be on the wrong side.”
During the Obamacare campaign, Rivera convened strategy sessions at 9 a.m. in a “war room” at SEIU headquarters. According to Crain’s, the campaign deployed “an army of 400 SEIU staff and members who are fanned out across 16 priority states. Union leaders have identified 20 senators and nine representatives they believe need some swaying to the cause of reform, and researchers have produced 100-page dossiers on each of them. The reports contained detailed information ranging from lists of associates who might influence these legislators to notes about how they typically respond to TV ads that protest their positions. The union has drawn up specific plans to target each elected official, ranging from writing letters and making phone calls to bird-dogging and holding sit-ins. If an official typically doesn’t respond to union pressure, it’s duly noted, and sympathetic leaders from religious or women’s groups have been primed to work them over.”
Particularly valuable in Rivera’s effort were left-wing groups that are not perceived by the general public as left-wing, such as the AARP and the American Cancer Society, which are thought by most people to be a senior citizens’ group and a traditional charity.
One of the key politicians with whom Rivera formed an alliance was Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. A relative moderate from a conservative state, Baucus had little history with SEIU before 2008. Rivera targeted Baucus, gradually building a relationship, then using the endorsement of so-called “reform” by Walmart as leverage to get Baucus on board. Without the help of Baucus, it’s unlikely Democrats would have held together in support of Obamacare—and without the unanimous support of the Senate’s 60 Democrats, the legislation could not have passed.
The irony: It was Baucus who, this year, labeled the rollout of Obamacare a “train wreck.”
Rivera’s efforts bore fruit when Obamacare passed Congress. In the course of the campaign, the legislation’s supporters had labeled opponents as racists who only fought against the President’s program because it was proposed by a black man. In a 2010 speech, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka recalled personally witnessing the racism of Obamacare opponents on the day of the key vote: “I watched them spit at people. I watched them call John Lewis the N-word.” Recordings of the incident proved that no such display of racism ever occurred, but it hardly mattered. Claims by opponents that Obamacare would be a disaster, claims that were backed up by the most thoughtful analysis available, hardly mattered. To the unions, what counted was victory. Any problems could be fixed later—right?
Dr. Steven J. Allen (JD, PhD) is editor of Labor Watch. This post is the second of a three-part series originally published by Labor Watch, a project of the Capitol Research Center, and is published here with permission.