The Wages of Sickness: The Politics of Health Insurance in Progressive America

By Beatrix Hoffman | Go to book overview

6

The House of
Labor Divided

Organized labor in the United States has been a principal supporter of universal health insurance since the 1930s. 1 In the Progressive Era, however, the mainstream labor movement embodied in the American Federation of Labor forcefully opposed compulsory health insurance. AFL president Samuel Gompers called the AALL's social insurance proposals "a menace to . . . [the] rights, welfare, and . . . liberty” of American workers. The American Association for Labor Legislation's health insurance plan, according to its opponents, was destined to fail because it was resisted not only by the designated providers of health insurance—doctors and employers—but also by its potential beneficiaries, the workers themselves. 2

But on closer examination, the story is more complicated. Samuel Gompers's distaste for social insurance was far from universal in the ranks of organized labor. As one labor leader declared in 1919, "Misleading statements have recently been circulated in New York State in an attempt to make it appear that organized labor is opposed to a health insurance law. Quite the contrary is true.” 3 In defiance of the official AFL position, local trade union leaders in New York threw their support behind the AALL's proposal, and in 1919 the New York State Federation of Labor became a co-sponsor of the health insurance bill.

The question of whether "labor” approved of compulsory health insurance was a contentious one. Both the reformers and the forces of opposition sought to claim the allegiance of organized labor to their side. Business groups printed pamphlets featuring Gompers's attacks on the AALL and eagerly recruited conservative labor leaders to the anti-health insurance cause. Reformers amassed testimony in favor of health insurance from trade unionists and enlisted labor representatives to champion the legislation at state assembly hearings. Both sides claimed to speak for the true interests of labor.

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