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

More articles by:

Steve Early has been active in the labor movement since 1972. He was an organizer and international representative for the Communications Workers of American between 1980 and 2007. He is the author of four books, most recently Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money and The Remaking of An American City from Beacon Press. He can be reached at Lsupport@aol.com

November 20, 2017
T.J. Coles
Doomsday Scenarios: the UK’s Hair-Raising Admissions About the Prospect of Nuclear War and Accident
Peter Linebaugh
On the 800th Anniversary of the Charter of the Forest
Sheldon Richman
Assertions, Facts and CNN
Ben Debney
Plebiscites: Why Stop at One?
LV Filson
Yemen’s Collective Starvation: Where Money Can’t Buy Food, Water or Medicine
Thomas Knapp
Impeachment Theater, 2017 Edition
Binoy Kampmark
Trump in Asia
Curtis FJ Doebbler
COP23: Truth Without Consequences?
Louisa Willcox
Obesity in Bears: Vital and Beautiful
Deborah James
E-Commerce and the WTO
Ann Garrison
Burundi Defies the Imperial Criminal Court: an Interview with John Philpot
Robert Koehler
Trapped in ‘a Man’s World’
Stephen Cooper
Wiping the Stain of Capital Punishment Clean
Weekend Edition
November 17, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Thank an Anti-War Veteran
Andrew Levine
What’s Wrong With Bible Thumpers Nowadays?
Jeffrey St. Clair - Alexander Cockburn
The CIA’s House of Horrors: the Abominable Dr. Gottlieb
Wendy Wolfson – Ken Levy
Why We Need to Take Animal Cruelty Much More Seriously
Mike Whitney
Brennan and Clapper: Elder Statesmen or Serial Fabricators?
David Rosen
Of Sex Abusers and Sex Offenders
Ryan LaMothe
A Christian Nation?
Dave Lindorff
Trump’s Finger on the Button: Why No President Should Have the Authority to Launch Nuclear Weapons
W. T. Whitney
A Bizarre US Pretext for Military Intrusion in South America
Deepak Tripathi
Sex, Lies and Incompetence: Britain’s Ruling Establishment in Crisis 
Howard Lisnoff
Who You’re Likely to Meet (and Not Meet) on a College Campus Today
Roy Morrison
Trump’s Excellent Asian Adventure
John W. Whitehead
Financial Tyranny
Ted Rall
How Society Makes Victimhood a No-Win Proposition
Jim Goodman
Stop Pretending the Estate Tax has Anything to do With Family Farmers
Thomas Klikauer
The Populism of Germany’s New Nazis
Murray Dobbin
Is Trudeau Ready for a Middle East war?
Jeiddy Martínez Armas
Firearm Democracy
Jill Richardson
Washington’s War on Poor Grad Students
Ralph Nader
The Rule of Power Over the Rule of Law
Justin O'Hagan
Capitalism Equals Peace?
Matthew Stevenson
Into Africa: From the Red Sea to Nairobi
Geoff Dutton
The Company We Sadly Keep
Evan Jones
The Censorship of Jacques Sapir, French Dissident
Linn Washington Jr.
Meek Moment Triggers Demands for Justice Reform
Gerry Brown
TPP, Indo Pacific, QUAD: What’s Next to Contain China’s Rise?
Robert Fisk
The Exile of Saad Hariri
Romana Rubeo - Ramzy Baroud
Anti-BDS Laws and Pro-Israeli Parliament: Zionist Hasbara is Winning in Italy
Robert J. Burrowes
Why are Police in the USA so Terrified?
Chuck Collins
Stop Talking About ‘Winners and Losers’ From Corporate Tax Cuts
Ron Jacobs
Private Property Does Not Equal Freedom
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Mass Shootings, Male Toxicity and their Roots in Agriculture
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail