Health care for all was the organizing principle of Monday's Labor Day Parade in South Buffalo, as sign-carrying union members, marching bands and floats in the annual event traversed the 1.5-mile route in mild, pleasant weather.
Health care reform faces an uncertain future in Congress, with the big question centering on whether Democrats can muster enough support in the Senate to incorporate a public option. In Cazenovia Park, where the march concluded, local union leaders said that they considered such an option, as an alternative to private insurance plans, to be essential.
"We really need the public option," said Michael Hoffert, president of Bufalo AFL-CIO Central Labor Council. "Most union folks would like single-payer; however, the public option has to be in there. We have to get everybody covered, and private insurance just won't do this."
Mary Brogbinski, a nurse at Buffalo General Hospital, said she sees the need for universal health coverage every day on the job.
"I work in critical care and see patients who come into our hospital who are much sicker than they would have been had they had access to primary care," said Brogbinski, director of education and communication with Communication Workers of America Local 1168, Nurses United.
She said not insuring 47 million people in the United States has caused a huge financial burden for workers and the hospitals that serve them.
"We as a government need to step in and help all of our people have coverage. It should be cradle-to-grave coverage, universal care with a public option," Brogbinski said.
Michael Wach, Teamsters Local 375 president, said health care has become central to contract discussions.
"It's the big issue, and everybody is well aware of that," Wach said.
One of the crowd-pleasing floats was put together by Local 10, Actors Equity and the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees, featuring performers doing Broadway tunes.
Actor Don Gervasi, who busied himself passing out candy to youngsters, said the cost of health care was the biggest stumbling block in preventing possibly three local theaters from becoming professional union houses. Buffalo hasn't had one since last year's demise of Studio Arena Theatre.
Gervasi said actors who work full time are among those hoping for substantive health care reform.
One setback to the labor movement has been the failure of the Democrat-controlled Congress to pass the Employer Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to join unions.
"I'm really upset that we haven't gotten this, but we're still fighting," the AFL-CIO's Hoffert said.
But Hoffert expressed confidence in the state of the local labor movement, saying: "We're [going strong] and taking names. We've taken some big hits, but we are a strong union town."
Marc Panepinto, an attorney and a former labor organizer, said tough economic times present opportunity for unions.
"The state of the labor movement is in a scary position, but in times of crisis, labor has always expanded. I'm optimistic," Panepinto said.