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Obama Rallies Labor in Fight for Health-Care Reform

President Barack Obama addresses the AFL-CIO, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2009, at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh, Pa. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
President Barack Obama addresses the AFL-CIO, Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2009, at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in Pittsburgh, Pa. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) (Charles Dharapak -- AP)

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By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 16, 2009

PITTSBURGH, Sept. 15 -- The anxiety that has afflicted organized labor so far this year as it saw President Obama and congressional Democrats making concessions on some of its top priorities evaporated on Tuesday as Obama rallied a big crowd at the AFL-CIO's convention.

In a fiery speech to the nation's largest labor federation, Obama urged members to get behind his proposal to overhaul the health-care system, which he vowed would pass in the next few months. To his audience's satisfaction, he reiterated his support for including a government-run insurance plan, or public option, among the choices for consumers -- a top priority for AFL-CIO leaders. And he dropped some of the language he used in last week's health-care address to Congress in which he seemed to play down the importance of the public option. He also left out his support for a tax on costly health plans, which could hurt union members.

"The White House is pretty nice, but nothing like being back in the house of labor!" said Obama, who also visited a General Motors plant in Warren, Ohio, and attended a fundraiser for Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) in Philadelphia.

The audience's biggest cheer, though, came for his reaffirmation of his intention to sign legislation that would make it easier to form unions, the Employee Free Choice Act. The bill has been languishing amid resistance from conservative Senate Democrats on its provision to allow workers to organize by getting co-workers to sign pro-union cards instead of having to hold secret-ballot elections.

An hour before Obama's appearance, Specter told the convention that he had high hopes of passing a bill by year's end that, while not including the "card check" provision, would include many of labor's other goals. Among those are tougher penalties for companies that violate labor-relations rules and binding arbitration in the many cases in which employers refuse to bargain with newly formed unions.

Specter said that while he expected to get no Republican votes for the bill, he was confident that even conservative Democrats, such as Sen. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.), would back it, or at least provide the votes needed to break a filibuster. And he thanked labor for backing him in his upcoming primary -- after a career of enjoying labor backing, Specter briefly alienated unions with his comments against card-check this spring. But he won it back after he switched parties.

"I realize that elections are won or lost with the support of the AFL-CIO," he said.

Richard Trumka, the federation's incoming president, said the group was still set on getting the card-check provision and would not comment on potential compromises. But he was full of praise for Obama, who over the weekend announced a tariff against Chinese-made tires that was sought by the steelworkers union.

"He really gets it," Trumka said. "He's one of the first presidents who . . . speaks from a worker's point of view who actually understands what workers think and feel."


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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