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Labor Draws a Line in the Sand On Public Option

5215995Labor leaders drew a line in the sand today, saying a health care reform bill must include three specific elements -- including a government-sponsored health insurance plan, or "public option" -- in order to win their support.

The AFL-CIO outlined its demands for both health care and labor law reforms at a meeting today at which it released a new survey of young workers. The data backs up its progressive agenda and attempts to give it a sense of urgency.

The "Young Workers: A Lost Decade" poll, conducted in July of this year, found that 31 percent of workers under 35 report being uninsured, up from 24 percent 10 years ago. Counter to arguments that young people do not want to pay for insurance, 79 percent of the uninsured said they do not have coverage because they cannot afford it or their employer does not offer it.

"Every day people are drowning from the cost of health care," AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said.

Richard Trumka, who will replace Sweeney as president in a couple of weeks, said there are "three absolute musts" for health care: the public option, an employer mandate, and no taxes on employer-provided health care.

"That means we won't support the bill if it doesn't have the public option in it," Trumka said.

He alluded to his earlier assertion that lawmakers will pay a political price if they do not support the public option.

"We're going to tell our members the truth, who stood with them," he said.

The survey released today painted a picture of the economic hardship young workers are facing, which the labor leaders said was largely the result of rising health care costs.

The poll found 34 percent of young workers live with their parents for financial reasons, while just 31 percent say they make enough money to cover their bills and put some money aside— a 22 percent drop from 1999, when labor's last "young workers" survey was conducted.

Twenty-four percent of young workers say they cannot pay their monthly bills, and 70 percent would not have enough money saved to cover two months of living expenses, were they to be laid off.

In 2008, union members only accounted for 12.4 percent of employed wage and salary workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Still, they remain a force to be reckoned with in Washington. Special Report: Health Care

President Obama, who benefitted from labor support in the 2008 election, will be addressing the AFL-CIO convention in Pittsburgh in two weeks, as well as the AFL-CIO picnic in Cincinnati over Labor Day weekend.

While town hall protesters angry with Mr. Obama's health care agenda received most of the limelight over the month of August, labor unions had a strong presence at the events as well -- more than 18,000 union members attended more than 400 town halls in August, the AFL-CIO said.

This Labor Day weekend, more than 100,000 union members will show their support for health care reform and labor reform -- specifically, the Employee Free Choice Act --in events across the country.

"Workers are invigorated and ready for round two of the fight," AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker said today.

Though 18-to-35-year-olds only make up about 25 percent of union membership, they typically have more progressive priorities, Trumka said.

Today's survey showed that young workers favor expanding public investment over reducing the budget deficit by a 22-point margin. Also, more than half of young workers said employees are more successful getting problems resolved as a group rather than as individuals, and employees who have a union are better off than employees in similar jobs who do not.

Trumka said the AFL-CIO will reach out to young workers in an unprecendented way at its convention this month.