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Texas AFL-CIO demands health care for all

By Paul Hill

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas - The Texas AFL-CIO held its 47th Constitutional Convention from August 1 through 4 at the Omni Hotel on Corpus Christi bay. Delegates came from all over the state and were ethnically diverse men and women who represented all age groups. Delegates were treated to a variety of excellent speakers who repeatedly emphasized the importance of political organization among labor activists to achieve legislation that benefits working people. Many union and non-union speakers focused on the electoral successes in Texas, both in increasing the number of Democrats in the state legislature and in the U.S. House of Representatives. They all owe their success to the hard work of organized labor in Texas. The convention was ecstatic that organized labor had broken the back of the Tom DeLay political machine and elected Ciro Rodriguez and Nick Lampson to the U.S. House.

Numerous speakers talked about the importance of achieving universal health care and the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). Unity and organization were also repeated themes. Becky Moeller, President-elect of the Texas AFL-CIO and the first woman to hold that office, instructed us, "To make progress, we have to band together…Together and united we can leave organized labor's footprint in Texas."

The convention united behind HR 676, a bill introduced by John Conyers (D-Michigan), which would provide single payer health care for all people of this country. A resolution was passed to the delight of the delegates supporting this "Medicare for all" legislation. The Texas AFL-C IO adds its name to 81 Central Labor Councils, 297 union organizations and 20 state AFL-CIOs that have offered their support to HR 676

Delegates were also fired up over the issue of workplace safety. One delegate from the United Steel Workers Union in Houston told me that Exxon executives said in a safety committee meeting that they would rather take a fine than make necessary repairs to improve safety. The worker wished that the media would pay more attention to workplace safety issues.

A Public Employees and State OSHA panel was moderated by Judy Lugo of the Texas State Employees Union who noted that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration law does not cover public workers. Also speaking were Eric Hartman of Texas AFT and Oran McMichael of AFSCME. McMichael pointed out that OSHA has eight offices in Texas, but no access to public employees despite potential dangers on their jobs. He said 5,503 public workers die annually, and "We cannot go another day without having 300,000 public employees covered." Hartman said public school employees face some of the same hazards that workers in other industries face. It is difficult to maintain workplace safety because of the lack of OSHA monitoring and enforcement of asbestos laws, state laws addressing school violence, public advocacy on custodian health and safety, exhaust from idling buses and use of pesticides.

Members of the National Nurse's Organizing Committee attended the Resolutions Committee meeting to support a resolution in favor of the Texas Hospital Patient Protection Act, HB 1707. Members of the NNOC pointed out that hospitals are owned by corporations now. Corporations are reducing staff levels to increase profits and this has resulted in a decrease in quality of care. The proposed legislation would mandate safe patient-staff ratios and protect patient advocates. According to the representatives from NNOC, there is no shortage of nurses. 50% of R.N.s choose not to work because of unsafe work conditions. In other words, the quality of care is so poor because of reduced staffing that patients lives are endangered and the Nurses fear losing their licenses as well as hurting patients.

Larry Cohen, President of Communications Workers of America, stirred the audience by declaring, "Texas is always a battleground state…We're not going to wait for a progressive Texas - We're here to fight for a progressive Texas!" He urged the delegates to support health care for all. He pointed out that AT&T is headquartered in San Antonio. Whenever CWA goes to the bargaining table with AT&T, "they always push back in bargaining on health care," he said. AT&T has a health care bill of $6 billion alone. CWA has asked AT&T to work with them to pass universal health care and "in other democracies it is considered a right," he noted. Mr. Cohen quoted a veteran who had recently returned from Iraq as saying that his worst fear is that "I'll get a job with no health care." He also stressed the importance of improving bargaining rights to bring the U.S. up to the standards of other countries.

Rick Diegel, Political Legislative Director of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, told the convention that in a recent poll, 57 million non-union American workers said if they could join a union, they would do it today. The Employee Free Choice Act will allow workers to form unions at their worksites. The legislation was blocked by procedural maneuvers engineered by Sen. John Cornyn (R - Texas) at the behest of the Bush administration. He called for the defeat of Cornyn in the 2008 elections because of his obstructionism.

Linda Chavez-Thompson, Executive Vice President of the AFL-CIO and a native Texan, gave a fiery address as she lambasted President Bush and his anti-working people policies. She called for a National health care plan and enactment of the EFCA. She called for a President "who will be on our side." "It all goes back to Woody Guthrie," she reminded us, "and how he sang sixty years ago. He said this land was made for you and me. His song is still true today. This land was not made to keep working people down. This land wasn't made for union busting and race baiting and gay bashing or for oppressing women and immigrants and people with disabilities. This land wasn't made for us to be poor, scared, insulted and denied a voice when we need it the most. This land wasn't made to break our spirit in the sweatshops and break our backs in the fields. This land was made for you and me to be strong and proud. This land was made for every young person in America including my grandchildren to have a future of freedom and promise."

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