How Will Obamacare Affect Unionized Workers?

by DAVID MACARAY

With most major provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), commonly and often pejoratively referred to as “Obamacare,” set to go into effect in January 2014, union members across the country have been wondering how the PPACA will affect the health care benefits already laid out in their union contracts.

Although it’s a bit unnerving how few people in positions of authority (plant managers, HR reps, health care administrators, etc.) seem to know exactly how the PPACA will work, the answer to the question, “How will Obamacare affect my union health care benefits?” is fairly clear. The answer is that it will likely have no effect whatsoever.

As a general rule, contract language supersedes everything. Unless the language in question is in clear violation of state or federal law, it is going to trump all else. Indeed, that’s not only the whole point of a binding agreement, it’s the virtue of a union contract, the beauty of an employee having access to the collective bargaining process, and the advantage of not being treated like a doormat.

A recent article in the Washington Post raised what might otherwise have been a red flag. The Post reported that UPS announced that, as of January 1, it was no longer going to allow its employees to provide health care coverage for working spouses. If you had a wife or husband who was working elsewhere, you could no longer cover them. The change is expected to affect approximately 15,000 workers.

Because the PPACA requires employers (with 50 or more employees) to provide affordable health insurance, UPS management saw an opening and decided to exploit it. It was an opportunity to get out from under what they considered a fairly significant financial burden. But the article was careful to note that this applied only to its non-union workforce, and had nothing to do with its unionized employees (mainly Teamsters).

In theory, labor unions have the ability to control their own destiny via the collective bargaining process by customizing and adapting a contract to fit their specific needs. This is not something that came easily; it took organized labor more than 100 years to carve out that niche. So what’s the lesson for those non-union UPS workers and their spouses who just received the bad news? Not to be glib, but the lesson is that they need to organize.

Because much of this PPACA package is provisional, and because, presumably, everyone is going to be looking for loopholes and exceptions, there’s no way of knowing for certain what kind of health insurance these employers are going to provide. Yes, the coverage is mandated by federal law, but how good will it be? Only when you negotiate a medical plan at the bargaining table are you assured of knowing what you’re getting (and even then it’s often unclear).

But there’s some irony here. Prior to the PPACA, management could announce that it was no longer going to provide union employees with medical coverage. Although a company risks a strike by pulling a stunt like this, it’s been done in the past, and with replacement workers looming as the wild card, some companies have gotten away with it without going to war. A weak union, or a union dealing with a struggling company, wouldn’t have much of a choice.

However, with the PPACA in place, companies won’t have the option of unilaterally eliminating medical coverage. Removing this expensive item from the contract will no longer automatically result in cost savings because federal law will require that they provide it in any event.

And based on how most businesses regard government mandates, it’s safe to say they’d rather take their chances with a union bargaining team. Of course, as always, the bottom-line is going to dictate what happens in the health care arena, and if the PPACA card can be used as leverage, management will definitely play it.

Oddly, there’s a flip-side to this. It may turn out that fewer workers want to join a union once they realize companies are required to provide affordable health insurance. In truth, the main reason some people join a union is to have access to health insurance, so this scenario isn’t that farfetched. In any event, one thing is clear: Union-wise, Obamacare could very well be—as so many have predicted—a mixed bag.

David Macaray, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former union rep. He can be reached at dmacaray@earthlink.net

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is “Nightshift: 270 Factory Stories.” He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
September 02, 2015
Paul Street
Strange Words From St. Bernard and the Sandernistas
Jose Martinez
Houston, We Have a Problem: False Equivalences on Police Violence
Henry Giroux
Global Capitalism and the Culture of Mad Violence
Ajamu Baraka
Making Black Lives Matter in Riohacha, Colombia
William Edstrom
Wall Street and the Military are Draining Americans High and Dry
David Altheide
The Media Syndrome Between a Glock and a GoPro
Ruth Fowler
Ask Not: Lost in the Crowd with Amanda Palmer
Yves Engler
Canada vs. Africa
Ron Jacobs
The League of Empire
Stephen Lendman
Gaza: a Socioeconomic Dead Zone
Andrew Smolski
Democracy and Privatization in Neoliberal Mexico
Norman Pollack
Obama, Flim-Flam Artist: Alaska Off-Shore Drilling
Kim Nicolini
Remembering Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes
September 01, 2015
Mike Whitney
Return to Crisis: Things Keep Getting Worse
Michael Schwalbe
The Moral Hazards of Capitalism
Eric Mann
Inside the Civil Rights Movement: a Conversation With Julian Bond
Pam Martens
How Wall Street Parasites Have Devoured Their Hosts, Your Retirement Plan and the U.S. Economy
Jonathan Latham
Growing Doubt: a Scientist’s Experience of GMOs
Fran Shor
Occupy Wall Street and the Sanders Campaign: a Case of Historical Amnesia?
Joe Paff
The Big Trees: Cockburn, Marx and Shostakovich
Randy Blazak
University Administrators Allow Fraternities to Turn Colleges Into Rape Factories
Robert Hunziker
The IPCC Caught in a Pressure Cooker
George Wuerthner
Myths of the Anthropocene Boosters: Truthout’s Misguided Attack on Wilderness and National Park Ideals
Robert Koehler
Sending Your Children Off to Safe Spaces in College
Jesse Jackson
Season of the Insurgents: From Trump to Sanders
August 31, 2015
Michael Hudson
Whitewashing the IMF’s Destructive Role in Greece
Conn Hallinan
Europe’s New Barbarians
Lawrence Ware
George Bush (Still) Doesn’t Care About Black People
Joseph Natoli
Plutocracy, Gentrification and Racial Violence
Franklin Spinney
One Presidential Debate You Won’t Hear: Why It is Time to Adopt a Sensible Grand Strategy
Dave Lindorff
What’s Wrong with Police in America
Louis Proyect
Jacobin and “The War on Syria”
Lawrence Wittner
Militarism Run Amok: How Russians and Americans are Preparing Their Children for War
Binoy Kampmark
Tales of Darkness: Europe’s Refugee Woes
Ralph Nader
Lo, the Poor Enlightened Billionaire!
Peter Koenig
Greece: a New Beginning? A New Hope?
Dean Baker
America Needs an “Idiot-Proof” Retirement System
Vijay Prashad
Why the Iran Deal is Essential
Tom Clifford
The Marco Polo Bridge Incident: a History That Continues to Resonate
Peter Belmont
The Salaita Affair: a Scandal That Never Should Have Happened
Weekend Edition
August 28-30, 2015
Randy Blazak
Donald Trump is the New Face of White Supremacy
Jeffrey St. Clair
Long Time Coming, Long Time Gone
Mike Whitney
Looting Made Easy: the $2 Trillion Buyback Binge
Alan Nasser
The Myth of the Middle Class: Have Most Americans Always Been Poor?
Rob Urie
Wall Street and the Cycle of Crises