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Rich Trumka's Speech to National Press Club

Jeremy Sprinkle
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Support Health Care for America NowAFL-CIO President talks jobs, restoring the middle class, and health care

In a speech delivered to the National Press Club on Monday, National AFL-CIO President, Rich Trumka, said because of the failed policies of the past three decades, the United States is "a nation with profound, unaddressed structural economic problems on a long-term, downward slide."

These structural problems made the economic collapse possible, Trumka said. "We built a low-wage, high consumption economy and tried to bridge the contradiction with debt. And there's a lot of truth in that simplicity."

Trumka laid blame for these structural problems on the decisions of policymakers a generation ago who "embarked on a campaign of radical deregulation and corporate empowerment - one that celebrated private greed over public service."

Those choices undermined the middle class by under investing in the foundations of our economy - transportation and communications infrastructure, education and training - and by failing to create enough good jobs to maintain the middle class while allowing "corporate hacks" to undermine workers' bargaining power and the quality of remaining jobs. No good jobs means no sustainable demand to drive our economy.

"We must pass the Employee Free Choice Act so that workers can have the chance to turn bad jobs into good jobs, and so we can reduce the inequality which is undermining our prospects for stable economic growth. And we must do it now--not next year, not even this summer. Now."

Turning around America will require a "crucial alliance" between the middle class and the poor. "But today, as I speak to you, something different is happening with health care," said Trumka.

"On the one hand we have the House bill, which asks the small part of our country that has prospered in the last decade--the richest of the rich--to pay a little bit more in taxes so that most Americans can have health insurance. And the House bill reins in the power of health insurers and employers by having an employer mandate and a strong public option.

"But thanks to the Senate rules, the appalling irresponsibility of the Senate Republicans and the power of the wealthy among some Democrats, the Senate bill instead drives a wedge between the middle class and the poor. The bill rightly seeks to ensure that most Americans have health insurance. But instead of taxing the rich, the Senate bill taxes the middle class by taxing workers' health plans--not just union members' health care; most of the 31 million insured employees who would be hit by the excise tax are not union members.

"The tax on benefits in the Senate bill pits working Americans who need health care for their families against working Americans struggling to keep health care for their families. This is a policy designed to benefit elites--in this case, insurers, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and irresponsible employers, at the expense of the broader public. It's the same tragic pattern that got us where we are today, and I can assure you the labor movement is fighting with everything we've got to win health care reform that is worthy of the support of working men and women."

A warning for Democrats

Trumka said they are inviting nothing but disaster if Democrats "think they can push a few crumbs our way and then continue the failed economic policies of the last 30 years."

"Let me be even blunter. In 1992, workers voted for Democrats who promised action on jobs, who talked about reining in corporate greed and who promised health care reform. Instead, we got NAFTA, an emboldened Wall Street -- and not much more. We swallowed our disappointment and worked to preserve a Democratic majority in 1994 because we knew what the alternative was. But there was no way to persuade enough working Americans to go to the polls when they couldn't tell the difference between the two parties. Politicians who think that working people have it too good -- too much health care, too much Social Security and Medicare, too much power on the job -- are inviting a repeat of 1994.

"Our country cannot afford such a repeat."

Read the full text of President Trumka's prepared remarks to the National Press Club. Watch video of the event at the Press Club's web site.