10/19/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Cause of Our Lives: Meaningful Health Care Reform

Our Labor Day celebrations this year will be touched by sadness for the loss of our great friend Ted Kennedy.

A frequent visitor to UAW local union halls, he liked to tell us about his first day as a senator in 1963. When asked what committee assignments he preferred, he gave the same answer as his brothers: "I want the Labor Committee."

Ted Kennedy's remarkable Senate career, however, cannot be confined to any one subject. He passed laws that put food on the tables of needy families; raised the minimum wage; freed Soviet dissidents; and gave millions of children a chance to see a doctor.

Writing in Newsweek the month before he died, Kennedy called universal health care "the cause of my life." He shepherded dozens of measures through Congress, finding ways to expand coverage for children, seniors and the unemployed. All the while, he kept his eyes on the ultimate prize: A comprehensive insurance plan for every man, woman, and child in the United States.

Sometimes, Kennedy had to sail against the wind, as the pendulum of American politics swung away from his progressive philosophy. He succeeded, on health care and other issues, by forging new alliances, always with an eye on the next set of battles.

This Labor Day, our union and America's labor movement finds itself sailing in a difficult sea. The sacrifices made by UAW members to help save the American auto industry meant the reduction of tens of thousands of jobs, and reduced union membership. The route to renewal is through organizing, but a fierce, often illegal campaign of resistance by employers frequently prevents workers from exercising their democratic rights.

Kennedy was a strong supporter of the Employee Free Choice Act, a bill allowing workers a fair chance to organize and bargain. Millions of American workers want this opportunity, because they know a union paycheck is worth more than a non-union one -- $7,700 a year more, according to the latest Department of Labor data. Union jobs are also more likely to have employer-paid health and pension benefits than non-union jobs.

During recent debates about the American auto industry, it became fashionable in some circles to sneer at the mythical "overpaid" auto worker. In fact, by building a strong middle class, union members have contributed to a shared prosperity that benefits union and non-union members alike.

Healthy economies and healthy communities require good jobs and good wages. For those who think such benefits fall from the sky, here's a reality check: Whenever possible, employers will try to lower wages and keep individual workers hungry. The collective voice of a union is the only instrument workers have to put a check and balance on corporate power.

The power of a union, however, is measured by more than the strength of its contracts. The UAW is part of a social movement; giving back to our communities is part of who we are. UAW members act on these values every day: we've helped build homes in North Carolina with Habitat for Humanity; assist the unemployed in Pennsylvania, and work with the United Way on a reading program for schoolchildren in Detroit.

The American labor movement is about all of us joining together to deliver the American dream -- including the dream of universal health care for every man, woman and child.

Since his death, commentators have speculated as to what Ted Kennedy, the consummate negotiator, might have been willing to compromise to move health reform through Congress.

Such speculation is unnecessary. Knowing these were likely be his last public words on the subject, Kennedy spelled out in Newsweek "elements that are essential to any health-reform plan worthy of the name."

-- "First, we have to cover the uninsured."

-- "We'll make it illegal to deny coverage due to pre-existing conditions."

--"[W]e have to cut the cost of health care. One of the most controversial features of reform is one of the most vital. It's been called the 'public plan.' The federal government would negotiate rates -- in keeping with local economic conditions -- for a plan that would be offered alongside private insurance options."

-- "Except for small businesses with fewer than twenty-five employees, every company should have to cover its workers or pay into a system that will."

Kennedy's vision is elegant -- and achievable. It foresees quality, affordable care for all, with shared responsibility among employers, workers, consumers and the public sector. It's a vision UAW members will work to transform into reality -- even if we have to sail against the wind to get the job done.