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Health

In the early 20th century tuberculosis was recognized as a major threat to the health of workers and the general public. In 1911 the Central Trades & Labor Council (CTLC) established a Committee on Public Health to assist Rochester’s Health Association to develop the Iola Sanitorium, mandated as part of a state plan. The Committee called on organized labor to support the hospital, noting that workers bore the burden of the disease and hoping that “the time is not far off when the working man and working woman may ask as their right that they be provided with sanitary work shops and also be furnished housing conditions which shall not endanger their lives and promote the spread of this disease.” The Committee adopted the state slogan, “No uncared for tuberculosis in 1915,” and was soon pressing the County Board of Supervisors to deal with construction delays on Iola, the County’s tuberculosis hospital.

Later that year the CTLC joined the AFL-supported crusade against tuberculosis, approving the Committee on Public Health recommendation to assist in the sale of Red Cross Christmas Seals. Affiliates were urged to form committees which would meet together to further the work: “We workingmen should be especially interested in anything which tends to the suppression of Tuberculosis. These stamps sell for one cent,and,by each of us doing our little share, much can be done for the cause in this city.”

In 1916, the CTLC supported the Rochester Public Health Association when administration of its several programs — the tuberculosis clinic, the children’s clinics, the children’s hospital and the open air schools — came under attack. Noting that admissions and operations had more than doubled in 1915 and 3366 cases had been treated “at an average cost of $5.80 apiece, all without one cent of charge to those benefited,” the CTLC opposed dissolving the Association’s work and turning it over to the city under supervision of the Health Bureau.

Labor’s most significant struggle for health care took place in the 1950s, as the merging AFL and CIO councils sought to establish the Sidney Hillman Health Center for Rochester’s workers.

The Rochester Labor Council (RLC), along with the rest of organized labor, was determined to see Congress pass a federal health insurance plan for senior citizens. In 1961 Labor News articles blasted the American Medical Association for opposing “the Oldsters’ Health Plan” under Social Security. When Medicare finally became law in 1966, after years of debate, Labor News quoted RLC President Andy Schneider, “This is a great day for all of us in the organized labor movement. This is the day that Medicare goes into operation for many thousands of retired and older citizens of Rochester.” Labor News ran informative columns about Medicare for 13 weeks.

Local labor regularly scolded the medical profession for its failure to embrace the new Medicare and Medicaid programs. In 1967 the RLC passed a resolution calling for a congressional investigation into doctors increasing their fees for Medicare patients by up to 60%.

While labor was pushing for health insurance for the elderly and the poor, they were also working to convince the federal government that a comprehensive health insurance system was needed. In 1969 a Labor News editorial argued, “There is no logical alternative to a national health program just as no logical alternative exists to the national Social Security program.” In September 1969 the paper noted that health care costs were spiraling out of control — it cost more than $50/day to be in hospital! By 1974, though, Congress was so preoccupied with the impeachment of Richard Nixon that few were paying attention to national health insurance. By 1979, references to a national health program had largely disappeared from the pages of Labor News, and the issue wasn’t resurrected until the 1990s, when the RLC endorsed the principles contained in President Clinton’s health care plan.

The formation of the Finger Lakes Occupational Health Services clinic in 1992, with a labor majority on its governing board, brought to the region medical experts who could accurately assess the job-relatedness of illnesses and other disorders. FLOHS provided injured workers with needed assistance in establishing compensation claims and helped workers, unions and employers improve workplace health and safety conditions.

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