Unions Muscle Up to Confront Healthcare Protesters

Monday, 10 Aug 2009 01:02 PM

By David A. Patten

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Organized labor is gearing up to make a big push for President Obama’s “public option” healthcare plan, while also claiming to be the victim in melees that sent one town hall protester to the hospital late last week.

Union leaders appear to have decided that their best defense, following charges that town hall protesters were roughed up, is to levy those same allegations against the opponents of reform.

“Attacking a staffer? Harassing a pregnant woman? All in a day’s work for the opposition to healthcare reform,” one post on the Web site of the Service Employees International Union stated.

The union blamed conservative town hall protesters for “fear-mongering,” charging they are guilty of “harassment, intimidation, and physical violence.”

That allegation will come as a surprise to the town hall protesters who were blocked by members of the same union from attending a Tampa Bay town hall meeting last week, as well as a protester in Missouri who was beaten seriously.

Kenneth Gladney, a conservative activist, said he was handing out yellow flags with “Don’t tread on me” printed on them when he was attacked.

Gladney sustained injuries to his knee, back, shoulder, and face, according to the St. Louis Post Dispatch. An African-American, Gladney told the newspaper that one attacker who also was black used a racial slur before striking him.

“It just seems there’s no freedom of speech without being attacked,” Gladney told the newspaper.

A St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter and a Service Employees International Union staffer were among the six people arrested at the Missouri town hall event featuring Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-Mo.

Last week’s violence occurred the same day AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney sent out a memo to members urging “major union participation to counter the right-wing ‘Tea-Party Patriots’ who will try to disrupt those meetings, as they've been trying to do to meetings for the last month.”

Sweeney referred to the town hall protesters as the same “hooligans” he says harassed Florida vote counters during the contentious 2000 presidential election.

A post from the Service Employees International Union during the weekend accused the protesters of “harassment, intimidation, and physical violence.”

In an effort to seize the moral high ground in the town hall debate, the service employees union has posted on its Web site a pledge for members and others to take.

Members would promise to attend town hall meetings “without being disruptive or disrespectful” and “to allow the opinions of fellow attendees to be heard even if I disagree.”

On Friday, the unions claimed to be victims of violent threats. The Huffington Post reports that the Service Employees International Union was “deluged” with calls Friday accusing the organization of trying to assault demonstrators who showed up to protest “public-option” healthcare reform.

The Huffington Post report cited one anonymous tweet and one anonymous phone call to the union offering veiled threats of violence should the union try to “repress people’s First Amendment rights.”

The AFL-CIO also has reported receiving a flurry of angry e-mails.

The Wall Street Journal reported Saturday that congressional Democrats are rethinking their strategy of town hall meetings.

Democrats are considering teleconferences and smaller, invitation only gatherings as ways to avoid meetings where outspoken opponents of healthcare reform are free to voice their opinions in disruptive ways.

“Democrats may think that attacking or ignoring this growing chorus of Americans is a smart strategy,” Paul Lindsay, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, told the Journal. “But they are obviously forgetting that these concerned citizens are voters as well.”

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs recommended on Friday that Democrats continue to convene town hall meetings, while urging that the proceedings remain civil. “I would recommend people that go to have their voices heard, that they have some respect for everybody else’s ability to be heard and participate in a town hall meeting."

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