The View From Here: Unions shouldn’t fight health care reform
A Nevada union’s self-interested campaign puts it on the side of an unworkable status quo.
by GREG KESICH – EDITORIAL PAGE EDITOR OF THE PORTLAND PRESS HERALD
I am a union member. I have health insurance provided by my employer. I fought for it at the bargaining table.
And it stinks.
I feel I need to say this because too often I hear politicians claim that the reason America shouldn’t have universal health care similar to national programs in other prosperous societies is that it would be unfair to union members who have bargained for better plans over the years.
So before this goes any further (I’m looking at you, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Michael Bloomberg), it’s just not true that “160 million people like their private insurance.”
I’ve got insurance and I’m not happy with it, and neither are most people I know.
We are glad we have insurance, as opposed to no insurance, but I don’t know anyone who likes dealing with high deductibles, cost-sharing, maximum out-of-pocket limits that reset every Jan. 1, or surprise bills from out-of-network doctors who you didn’t even know were treating you.
It’s bad enough to hear Democratic presidential contenders make this argument, but to hear union leaders egg them on is infuriating.
The latest comes from the Culinary Workers Union in Nevada, which is spending serious money attacking the idea of “Medicare for All,” as proposed by Bernie Sanders, the front-runner in the Democratic presidential primary campaign.
They are not saying that his health care proposal would be bad for the the working class or an inefficient way to manage what have been out-of-control costs that top $3 trillion a year.
No. They are against Medicare for All because it would replace the better-than-average health insurance benefits that their workers enjoy. In other words, they are making the same kind of argument that the “One Percenters” make against higher taxes – I’ve got mine, you get yours.
Unions should not play this game.
First, it’s a bad look: Union members make up less than 10 percent of the workforce, even less in the private sector. It’s hard for the other 90 percent of the workforce to forget our selfish attitude when there are national policy issues that affect only unions.
And it’s bad strategy: Prevailing low wages and poor benefits in the marketplace are a drag on union negotiators at contract time. Policies such as a higher minimum wage or universal health care raise the floor, giving negotiators more room to push for better conditions for their members.
Most importantly, unionized workers should not let themselves be used as a tool to benefit “Big Pharma,” insurance company stockholders and million-dollar-a-year hospital administrators who are benefiting from the system as it is.
Employer-provided insurance is an accident of history. It was the only recruitment tool available to manufacturers during the labor shortages of World War II, when wages were frozen by law.
In the decades since then, health care costs have climbed faster than wages or inflation, gobbling up a bigger chunk of the national economy.
The average annual premium for a family plan is $20,576 a year. The average annual deductible is $1,600. Roughly a quarter of family policy holders have an out-of-pocket maximum of $6,000 or more.
These costs vary widely based on factors that have nothing to do with people’s health care needs. The biggest variable in how much you have to pay is the number of employees in the plan, which why public-sector employee plans tend to be more generous. People in small companies and the self-employed pay the most for the worst coverage.
At those prices, there can’t be 160 million people who are happy with their employer-provided insurance.
What would union leaders do in the unlikely event that our health care system were replaced with a universal system that took health benefits out of the employer-employee relationship?
They could bargain for something else – more money, more time off, better food in the cafeteria.
Anything would be better than using their political clout to deny affordable health care to fellow workers.