The following is a speech CFT President Joshua Pechthalt gave at the Labor Campaign for Single Payer National Conference on Aug. 23 in Oakland
Thank you for inviting me to speak at your conference. I have been involved in the struggle to promote single payer health care reform for some time now but more importantly, my union the California Federation of Teachers, has supported single payer health care reform for many years.
As union members and leaders in education, we face the challenge of negotiating over public dollars and seeing money that could be used to improve conditions in our schools or pay better salaries, being gobbled up by health care benefits.
I was a high school teacher in Los Angeles for more than 20 years, the nation’s second largest school district. The Los Angeles Unified School District currently spends about $1 billion dollars a year on health benefits for district employees, family members and retirees.
Every time health benefits come up for negotiation, divisions reemerge pitting active employees against retirees, people who are single against those with spouses and children. Fortunately school district employees have stayed united but those divisions have the potential to split unions apart.
In addition, if we had a single payer system, the billions of dollars that school districts currently pay to health insurance providers, could be used to dramatically reduce class size, ensure we had nurses, librarians, mental health professionals and other support personnel in every school as well as provide the kind of enrichment programs only kids who attend private schools receive.
I certainly don’t need to tell all of you the importance of having labor lead the way in the fight for single payer reform. Ironically, the fact that labor only represents about 10% of the labor force makes it more important that we provide that leadership role.
If organized labor is ever going to reemerge as a vital force in this country, we will need to be seen by non-union members as advocating for quality of life issues that go beyond traditional bread and butter demands. The labor movement must be unequivocal in its advocacy for racial justice, gender equity, protecting the environment, quality public education and of course universal health care that is not driven by profits and the bottom line.
And while the labor movement is not what it once was, we still have the resources and organization to provide leadership in this fight. But we must also be clear that we cannot do it alone- we need to broaden and deepen our ties to community partners if we are going to be successful.
Forging a powerful labor community partnership must be a priority. It is that alliance that has the potential to be the foundation for a renewed social justice movement in this country.
Independent political action must also be a cornerstone for moving single payer reform. As many of you know, the CFT played a leadership role in bringing about one of the most progressive tax measures in California history, Prop 30. That initiative emerged out of a labor community coalition called Reclaim California’s Future that brought together the CFT and dozens of community based organizations statewide.
It was that coalition, standing outside the traditional legislative arena in which labor generally operates, that had the independence to pressure Governor Brown to negotiate with us on a merged tax measure.
Had that coalition, or the CFT, simply relied on behind closed doors negotiations with the Governor, we would never have had the leverage to force him to sit down with us and agree to a merged tax initiative.
But I’m not telling you anything new. That's why you’re all here and that's why when we achieve single payer health care reform in this country, it will be the result of the years of dedication, hard work, relentless advocacy and the clear vision of the women and men in this room.
Thank you and have a great conference!