Why Did Labor Leaders Vote Against Medicare for All in the Middle of a Pandemic?

Earlier this week, four labor leaders voted against including Medicare for All in the Democratic Party platform — a slap in the face to millions of Americans struggling through an unprecedented pandemic. We need a union movement that fights for all workers, both organized and unorganized.

American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten speaks to the audience at the union's annual convention on July 13, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Jeff Swensen / Getty Images)

On Monday, the platform committee of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) voted 125-36 not to include Medicare for All in the party’s platform.

Faced with a pandemic that has revealed the catastrophic irrationalities of the United States’s profit-driven health care system, it’s sad, but not surprising, that the billionaire-bought Democratic Party establishment remains more loyal to HMOs than working people.

But among those who voted no on Medicare for All were also four prominent national union presidents: Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), Lily Eskelsen Garcia of the National Education Association (NEA), Mary Kay Henry of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and Lonnie Stephenson of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW).

This is outrageous. Why did top representatives of organized labor help shoot down a measure that would dramatically improve the lives of millions of workers? Especially in the face of an unprecedented social crisis, we need unions to fight for the physical and economic health of all working-class people, organized and unorganized.

There’s never been a more urgent moment to support Medicare for All. With unemployment soaring, an estimated 27 million people — disproportionately black and Latino — may soon lose their insurance because of the US’s employer-sponsored health care system. Lacking a national public health system, the US lagged weeks behind the rest of the world in responding to the coronavirus, costing countless lives.

Even though testing is supposed to be free, many are nevertheless receiving bills for hundreds or thousands of dollars. And once a vaccine is developed, its accessibility for ordinary Americans will likely depend on extricating ourselves from the imperatives of the for-profit health system. Medicare for All would ensure lower health care costs for the vast majority.

Most people understand from experience why the US desperately needs serious reform: polls show that a majority of voters, and over 85 percent of Democrats, back Medicare for All. And this popular support has continued to steadily rise because of the pandemic. Some union leaders understand this too, as seen in the pro–Medicare for All vote of UNITE-HERE Local 2 president Anand Singh on Monday.

The actions of Weingarten, Eskelsen Garcia, and Henry are particularly disappointing because each of their unions have claimed to support Medicare for All. In 2019, the AFT, NEA, and SEIU all endorsed Pramila Jayapal’s Medicare for All Act, and Henry challenged the idea that Medicare for All would hurt unionized workers: “I really resent the 16 million workers who joined together and bargained for better health plans being pitted against millions of Americans struggling to get healthcare coverage.”

Weingarten on multiple occasions, including just a few months ago, has professed her support for single-payer. As she explained in 2017, “It’s well past time that we join the more than 30 countries guaranteeing universal access to affordable, high-quality healthcare. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All bill offers a path to achieve this goal.”

This dramatic disconnect between words and deeds comes from a strategy of working within the Democratic Party’s power structures, instead of challenging them. As this week’s DNC vote makes clear, the decades-long decline of organized labor, and the deterioration of working-class living conditions, will continue until our unions finally break their ties to the corporate-bought Democratic Party establishment.

Amid a devastating pandemic, the leaders of the AFT, NEA, SEIU, and IBEW had an opportunity to fight for the health of their members and the broader working class. Instead, they sided with the status quo. Workers need, and deserve, better than this.