FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Labor’s Love Lost Over Obamacare?

by STEVE EARLY

Like many labor negotiators, I looked to health care reform for legislative relief from endless haggling with management over employee benefit costs. My own union and others worked hard for passage of President Obama’s Affordable Care Act (ACA) three years ago. Despite its failure to take health insurance issues off the bargaining table, as a more preferable Medicare-for-All system would do, Obamacare was widely cheered by labor.

Union members were told, correctly, that the ACA would expand Medicaid access for millions of lower-income Americans and make private insurance coverage more consumer-friendly for everyone else. Organized labor also expected the new law to aid union bargaining by leveling the playing field among all employers, much like the minimum wage and other protective labor legislation does.

Unions hoped that the ACA would restrain medical cost inflation and corporate pressure for health care cost shifting. Both trends have been a major cause of recent strikes or contract rejections at AT&T, Verizon and United Parcel Service.

Instead, just months before key ACA provisions go into effect, Obamacare is backfiring in multiple ways on a labor movement already battered and bruised. Contrary to repeated White House assurances, many unionized workers now face more, rather than fewer, health plan problems and costs. Alarmed by Obama administration decisions and ACA provisions unfriendly to labor, top union leaders now fear that Obamacare will create “nightmare scenarios” for millions of workers, retirees, and their families.

Unintended Consequences?

In frantic letters to Congress, national presidents of the Teamsters, Laborers, Hotel Employees, and United Food and Commercial Workers unions cite the multiplying “unintended consequences” of the ACA. Around the country, smaller firms are already outsourcing so they can keep their total head count below 50 and not be covered by ACA requirements. Larger ones, like Wal-Mart, are planning to hire more part-timers and schedule existing employees for less than 30 hours a week so they won’t have to cover their non-fulltime workforce.

Even unionized retailers like Stop & Shop, faced with higher ACA-imposed medical plan costs, are pushing back. The food store chain sought to eliminate health coverage for thousands of part-time workers in New England, creating what one union official called his most difficult negotiations in 40 years.

Under the ACA, federal subsidies for eligible workers who wish to keep their individual job-based insurance won’t help them add or maintain family coverage – because the cost of that is not factored into the ACA subsidy formula. Even lower-income participants in multi-employer plans (known as Taft-Hartley funds) may end up being disadvantaged if ACA rules don’t permit them to qualify for subsidies on the same basis as workers without union-negotiated medical benefits. In both the private and public sector, employers are already citing the ACA’s 2018 tax on mis-named “Cadillac coverage” to justify givebacks from employees who, in reality, only have a healthcare Chevy in their garage.

According to MIT professor Jonathan Gruber, a top White House consultant, this impending 40 percent excise tax on higher cost plans “is intended to shift compensation away from excessively generous health insurance to wages.” Yet few in labor believe that more premium sharing, higher deductibles and co-pays will translate into better pay for workers without a fight over that as well.

Race to the Bottom

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which faults the ACA for triggering a “race to the bottom with respect to benefits,” is one of those labor organizations still hoping that the White House will make “common sense corrections” in the ACA.

However, the only flexibility that President Obama has shown so far is delaying, until 2015, the law’s requirement that larger employers provide insurance or pay a penalty. Plus, the White House has postponed much-needed limits on out-of-pocket costs for health care consumers. As D. Taylor, president of UNITE HERE, complained to HuffPo’s Dave Jamieson on August 21, the “people who’ve gotten special treatment are the business community … Here’s what we’re saying: ‘You made the problem, you fix it.’ Here we have a situation you can’t blame on the Republicans.”

Labor’s love will certainly be lost if ACA implementation punishes the president’s friends and rewards their corporate adversaries. In 2010, rank-and-file anger over Obama Administration plans to tax union members’ benefits produced a big labor vote in favor of Republican Scott Brown, when he briefly captured a vacant U.S. Senate seat in Massachusetts. The national GOP, which has no positive agenda for health care reform, may yet reap the harvest of wider working-class disillusionment with health care reform.

One leading single-payer activist worries that labor’s growing disaffection with Obamacare will generate more calls for its repeal – a stand already taken by the Roofers Union – followed by “a return to the status quo ante.” This former local union officer fears that a labor movement “more divided and cozying up to the Republicans to teach the Democrats a lesson” is not likely to find a better way forward.

To steer union discontent in a positive direction, the Labor Campaign for Single Payer Healthcare has collected hundreds of signatures on an open letter to be distributed to delegates at the national AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles, September 8-11. The letter urges AFL President Rich Trumka to “push the envelope further” in “the cause of health care justice” by using the shortcomings of Obamacare to build broader support for tax-supported universal coverage that “would take healthcare off the bargaining table.”

Instead, there are strong indications that top AFL-CIO officials want to tamp down any public criticism of ACA and the president (even though they are hailing their 2013 convention as “a time for decisive action to answer the challenges facing working people.”)

Preventing the labor backlash against Obamacare from actually forcing a real discussion on the convention floor will take some doing. In a resolution passed earlier this month, even the Nevada AFL-CIO has joined the public chorus of Obamacare critics, noting that “our health plans only get worse” while the White House fails to respond to serious union concerns.

Steve Early is a labor journalist, lawyer, and retired national staff member of the Communications Workers of America. He was involved, for many years, in bargaining with manufacturing and telecom firms in New England. He is the author, most recently, of Save Our Unions: Dispatches From A Movement in Distress, forthcoming from Monthly Review Press in November. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com

Steve Early is a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area currently working on a book about progressive municipal policy making there and elsewhere. He is the author, most recently, of Save Our Unions (Monthly Review Press, 2013). He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com

Weekend Edition
February 5-7, 2016
Jeffrey St. Clair
When Chivalry Fails: St. Bernard and the Machine
Leonard Peltier
My 40 Years in Prison
John Pilger
Freeing Julian Assange: the Final Chapter
Garry Leech
Terrifying Ted and His Ultra-Conservative Vision for America
Andrew Levine
Smash Clintonism: Why Democrats, Not Republicans, are the Problem
William Blum
Is Bernie Sanders a “Socialist”?
Daniel Raventós - Julie Wark
We Can’t Afford These Billionaires
Enrique C. Ochoa
Super Bowl 50: American Inequality on Display
Jonathan Cook
The Liberal Hounding of Julian Assange: From Alex Gibney to The Guardian
George Wuerthner
How the Bundy Gang Won
Mike Whitney
Peace Talks “Paused” After Putin’s Triumph in Aleppo 
Ted Rall
Hillary Clinton: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly
Gary Leupp
Is a “Socialist” Really Unelectable? The Potential Significance of the Sanders Campaign
Vijay Prashad
The Fault Line of Race in America
Eoin Higgins
Please Clap: the Jeb Bush Campaign Pre-Mortem
Joseph Mangano – Janette D. Sherman
The Invisible Epidemic: Radiation and Rising Rates of Thyroid Cancer
Andre Vltchek
Europe is Built on Corpses and Plunder
Jack Smith
Obama Readies to Fight in Libya, Again
Robert Fantina
As Goes Iowa, So Goes the Nation?
John Grant
Israel Moves to Check Its Artists
Dean Baker
Market Turmoil, the Fed and the Presidential Election
John Wight
Who Was Cecil Rhodes?
David Macaray
Will There Ever Be Anyone Better Than Bernie Sanders?
Christopher Brauchli
Suffer Little Children: From Brazil to Flint
JP Sottile
Did Fox News Help the GOP Establishment Get Its Groove Back?
Binoy Kampmark
Legalizing Cruelties: the Australian High Court and Indefinite Offshore Detention
John Feffer
Wrestling With Iran
Rob Prince – Ibrahim Kazerooni
Syria Again
Louisa Willcox
Park Service Finally Stands Up for Grizzlies and Us
Farzana Versey
Of Beyoncé, Trudeau and Culture Predators
Pete Dolack
Fanaticism and Fantasy Drive Purported TPP ‘Benefits’
Murray Dobbin
Canada and the TPP
Steve Horn
Army of Lobbyists Push LNG Exports, Methane Hydrates, Coal in Senate Energy Bill
Colin Todhunter
“Lies, Lies and More Lies” – GMOs, Poisoned Agriculture and Toxic Rants
Franklin Lamb
ISIS Erasing Our Cultural Heritage in Syria
David Mihalyfy
#realacademicbios Deserve Real Reform
Graham Peebles
Unjust and Dysfunctional: Asylum in the UK
Yves Engler
On Unions and Class Struggle
Alfredo Lopez
The ‘Bern’ and the Internet
Missy Comley Beattie
Super Propaganda
Ed Rampell
Great Caesar’s Ghost!: A Specter Haunts Hollywood in the Coen’s Anti-Anti-Commie Goofball Comedy
Cesar Chelala
The Public Health Impact of Domestic Violence
Ron Jacobs
Cold Weather Comforts of a Certain Sort
Charles Komanoff
On the Passing of the Jefferson Airplane
Charles R. Larson
Can One Survive the Holocaust?
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail