Dude, Where’s My Union Health Plan?

We are in the middle of a resurgence of organized labor in the US. From Amazon workers to auto workers and grad students to baristas at Starbucks, everyone is getting in on the action! One of the big reasons workers are so hot to get that union card is because of… you guessed it, healthcare! Today we’re going to be talking union healthcare plans – how they work and how workers have managed to use collective bargaining to resist the national erosion of healthcare access. Most importantly, we’re going to take a deep dive into why, even with better healthcare, unions have been leaders in the fight for Medicare for All, and how they might save the rest of us from corporate healthcare hell.

Our guest Jim McGee has spent his entire career working in union health benefits, starting with the Plumbers and Pipefitters local he belonged to in Harrisburg Pennsylvania. For the past 20 years, he has been the administrator of the health benefits plan for Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689. He’s on the steering committee for the labor campaign for single payer healthcare, and he’s joining us today from Bethesda, MD.

Show Notes

Jim educates us on the two types of union health plans:

  1. Unionized workers with a single employer (think nurses or teachers) earn employer-sponsored health benefits much like unorganized workplaces, but the cost and benefit sets of those plans can be negotiated if the workforce is unionized.
  2. Taft-Hartley plans are multiemployer plans that are jointly managed by multiple companies and the union within the same industry. The workers pay while they’re working to have health insurance when they’re not. Taft Hartleys exist in industries where there’s a lot of turnover, like the building trades. A worker may have many different employers and many periods of unemployment over their careers.

Typically both those options sound a lot better than what your average non-union worker is getting from their employer, though they are still subject to same rising costs and economic pressures as every other health insurance plan.

Given that union members are more likely to have health coverage than non-union workers, it’s interesting that unions have been at the forefront of the movement for Medicare for all. Many unions come from a rich progressive tradition that looks past the short term to the long term value of guaranteed healthcare for all workers. Jim also shares that the unions that are more exposed to competitive pressure in their environment are more likely to be supportive of Medicare for All. This is especially evident in less urban areas where locals are facing more non-union competition.

Jim notes that throughout his career, healthcare has been #1 cause of strikes. Taking it off the table would not only benefit the workers, it would benefit their entire community. Small businesses and non-union employers that offer poorer or no healthcare benefits to their employees often stay afloat on the backs of the unionized employers in their community that do offer good health benefits; this is an inquitable and unsustainable system.

Speaking of strikes, graduate student workers at Boston University are on strike right now over healthcare benefits among other things. Not only would Medicare for All take health insurance off the negotiating table (making more room for workers to bargain for pay, safety and other benefits), it would take away a the ability of employers to weaponize health insurance to break strikes; solidarity can crumble quickly when the employer stops paying those premiums at the first of the month.

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