Single payer gains supporter in national union

June 27, 2012

Times Argus

By Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Press Bureau
MONTPELIER — Proponents of single-payer health care are celebrating the arrival of a well-heeled patron prepared to spend heavily to advance the cause.

But the introduction of out-of-state money from a national labor union has raised the eyebrows of at least one prominent reform activist and touched off a turf war between labor groups fighting to represent home care workers in Vermont.

At a news conference Thursday, the founders of Vermont Leads will unveil their new organization aimed at broadening public support for the publicly financed, universal health care system envisioned in the single-payer law passed in 2011.

Underwritten entirely by a chapter of the Service Employees International Union, the group said its mass media activities — television and radio ads, primarily — will serve as a pre-emptive antidote to the monied interests that will inevitably try to kill single-payer.

“As a health care workers union, we believe in passing the most progressive health care reform possible,” said Matt McDonald, Vermont director for 1199 SEIU Health Care Workers East.

With 350,000 dues-paying members, 1199 SEIU is the largest chapter of a national union that has nearly 2 million members, none of whom resides in Vermont.

Though it lacks a base here, McDonald said the union believes “that what is happening in Vermont right now is the most important state-based initiative in the country, and we want to help in whatever way we can.”

The union has tapped longtime reform activist Peter Sterling to head its organization. Sterling, who departed his post at the Vermont Campaign for Health Care Security to take the new job, said the group’s considerable financial resources will enable it to “fill in gaps” that other grass-roots advocacy outfits have been unable to address.

Neither Sterling nor McDonald would say how much the SEIU is spending on the group, which, as a 501(c)4, will be able to engage in lobbying and mass media “issue advocacy.”

“A lot of people have said we’ll never be able to raise enough money in this state to do television ads. You can raise $10,000 to $20,000 maybe, but that doesn’t really get you anywhere,” Sterling said. “The fact that we have the resources now to reach people that we maybe haven’t been reaching in traditional grass-roots organizing is an incredible opportunity to advance the dialogue.”

Not every supporter of single-payer, however, has embraced the strategy. Sen. Anthony Pollina, a Progressive Party stalwart and early proponent of the single-payer concept, said Vermont Leads could trigger a big-money ad war that turns Vermonters off to health care reform.

“I personally don’t want to see this debate boiled down to 30-second sound bites,” Pollina said.

Reform advocates, he said, have long warned of the special interests that will spend heavily to kill single-payer. By adopting the same strategy, Pollina said, single-payer supporters risk coming off as hypocrites.

“Look, we’ve made a lot of progress in this state without a lot of big money interests coming in,” said Pollina, a Democrat-Progressive from Washington County. “It concerns me that our political leaders may begin to have their ears bent by outside organizations that may not be as committed to real health care reform as Vermonters.”

McDonald said the union’s motives are pure. The realization of single-payer in Vermont, he said, would spark needed reform in states where SEIU members work and live.

But not everyone is so sure. The SEIU’s arrival in Vermont coincides with a nascent push to organize about 5,000 home care workers in the state. It’s a group of workers that the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is also trying to organize.

Traven Leyshon, secretary-treasurer of the Vermont AFL-CIO (of which AFSCME is a branch), said the jury is out on SEIU’s sudden interest the Green Mountain State.

“If SEIU’s support for Vermont Leads reflects a sincere effort to advance the kind of health care reform we need, fine,” said Leyshon, who emphasizes he is speaking only for himself and not as a spokesman for the AFL-CIO. “If this is simply to curry political favor with Gov. Shumlin, then I think it’s problematic.”

Organizing home care workers in Vermont will first require enabling legislation — the same sort of bill that the American Federation of Teachers sought to pass on behalf of child care workers this year. Heavy support from the governor’s office would certainly aid the effort.

McDonald acknowledges meeting with Gov. Peter Shumlin in advance of launching the new group, but said the sit-down was designed to help him better understand how, in broad terms, the SEIU could be of service to the single-payer plan.

While the SEIU will be seeking the governor’s support for the enabling union legislation in January, McDonald said the creation of Vermont Leads is entirely unrelated to its legislative agenda.

Even if the SEIU succeeds in getting a law passed, McDonald said, “there is absolutely nothing within the powers of this governor to advantage SEIU over AFSCME.”

“There’s no legal mechanism available to him to do that,” McDonald said. “So the idea that somehow this governor will help us with a bill that said ‘SEIU gets the workers’ is just uninformed about how this process works.”

Vermont Leads has enlisted a who’s who of single-payer advocates to serve on the group’s seven-person board. Ellen Oxfeld, a founding member of the Vermont Progressive Party who has been working for single-payer since the 1990s, said supporters of reform can’t afford to turn up their noses at opportunities like the one being presented by the SEIU.

“This is an opportunity to reach segments of the population in Vermont that other groups who have worked on single-payer have not reached, because they’ve got a little more money behind them,” Oxfeld said.

As a board member, she said, she’ll have oversight of the organization’s activities. “I would like to assure people who have raised questions that as a board member of Vermont Leads, my goal would be to see that funds are going to be used exactly for what they say they’re going to be for, and that is for the promotion of knowledge about single-payer in Vermont,” Oxfeld said.

But already one founding member of the Vermont Leads board has stepped down over concerns about the connection between the SEIU and union organizing efforts.

Jill Charbonneau, a longtime single-payer advocate and former president of the Vermont State Labor Council, AFL-CIO, resigned her seat Monday evening. Because AFSCME is organizing in the same area as the SEIU, Charbonneau said, “I think it’s an appropriate thing for me to do to avoid the appearance of conflict.”

Charbonneau said her resignation doesn’t reflect doubt about the motives of the SEIU. “It’s a great thing for the single-payer movement to have some support,” Charbonneau said. “I personally do not think this is going to quote-unquote ‘curry favor with the governor.’ However, it would not be appropriate for me to speculate about the motives of the SEIU.”

Other pro-single-payer groups in Vermont are welcoming Vermont Leads with open arms. Dr. Deb Richter, head of Vermont for Single Payer and one of movement’s most recognizable names, said Vermont Leads is here to help.

“The point is that people who tend to benefit from single-payer don’t have billions of dollars in their pockets,” Richter said. “We’re lucky to have this union recognize that if one state gets single-payer, then it’s likely to spread and be beneficial to the whole country.”

James Haslam, executive director of the Vermont Workers’ Center, whose Health Care is a Human Right campaign is credited with galvanizing grass-roots support for single-payer, said he’s already spoken with McDonald and Sterling.

“We want as many people in Vermont as possible working toward universal health care,” Haslam said. “We think there might be ways we can collaborate on certain projects. Their organization is a new effort, they have some resources coming to it, and ideally it’s something that can help complement a lot of work on the ground.”

But Haslam and others will be watching closely to make sure that Vermont Leads doesn’t stray from the goals of the homegrown advocates who gave rise to the single-payer movement.

“They’re obviously in the early formative stage,” Haslam said. “We certainly would hope when they come out with their actual positions, that they be strong and clear and uncompromising, and that their actions reflect those positions.”

peter.hirschfeld @timesargus.com