Oregon Activists Look to Grassroots Approach to Win Universal Health Care

[…] Three activists from the Vermont Workers Center toured Oregon in December at the invitation of local Jobs with Justice chapters to spread the word on how they won landmark legislation laying the groundwork for a single-payer health care system in their state.

Their essential message: take it to the grassroots. Don’t split hairs over policy analysis. Don’t try to win over legislators who have heard all the arguments but haven’t felt the heat from their constituents. Don’t even use technical terms like “single payer,” unless you’re talking to people who already know what it means.

Instead, talk about health care as a human right—something everybody should have, regardless of the state of their bank account or their immigration papers, their medical condition, their job, their age, race, or gender, or whether some insurance underwriter thinks they’re a “good risk.” Seek out the people in all walks of life who have been burned by the health care system, get their stories, and turn them into effective activists and advocates.

For three years Vermonters built support in every corner of the state through one-on-one surveys, photo petitions, and public meetings where politicians were invited to hear testimony, comparable to the Workers’ Rights Board hearings that are a standard part of the Jobs with Justice toolkit.

The Vermonters’ tour made a tremendous impact, from metropolitan Portland to rural communities in eastern Oregon. Not everyone agreed with every aspect of the VWC approach, but everyone was talking about it. By the end of January, a new statewide coalition had convened to “create a comprehensive, affordable, publicly funded, universal health care system serving everyone in Oregon and the United States.”

By April, the coalition had a name—Health Care for All-Oregon—and close to 50 affiliates, including several statewide unions, immigrant rights groups, and community organizations ranging from the Rural Organizing Project to Elders in Action to Sisters of the Road (which advocates for the homeless).
Some, like Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP) and the Mad as Hell Doctors (whose cross-country tour in 2009 brought the message to a host of new audiences), make single payer their main focus. The majority of affiliates have other priorities, but have come to understand that the collapse of our health care system threatens everything else on their agenda.

The Oregon Latino Health Coalition, which has labored tirelessly under the radar to secure medical services for the state’s 150,000 undocumented, recognized immediately that the Health Care for All human rights framework provides an opportunity for open advocacy without being isolated or marginalized. In voting to affiliate, the Representative Assembly of the Oregon Education Association noted that the skyrocketing cost of teachers’ health benefits is draining money out of the classroom and has left the union increasingly vulnerable to attack.


Health Care for All-Oregon wants to bring everyone together to hammer out a strategy that works for all. The immediate task in Oregon, though, is not legislation but building the kind of mass base that changes the political climate in the state and makes legislation possible.

Efforts to pass single-payer bills in Vermont go back 20 years, but it was only after the Vermont Workers Center did three years of organizing around the principle of health care as a human right that they got results. Now that the Oregon coalition is up and running, we’ll see how much of Vermont’s game plan can be successfully exported.

Peter Shapiro is an organizer with Portland Jobs with Justice.