Friday, October 16, 2009

Health care reform shorts:
Labor's contradictions front and center

One of the ideas that has surfaced during Congressional legislative wrangling has been to tax employer-provided so-called "Cadillac" insurance plans. Besides being a revenue source, this at least looks like an attempt to moderate unfairness. Why, for example, should Congresspeople have access to excellent health plans that cover what they and their families need, while most people are stuck with high-deductible, high-co-pay, limited access insurance -- if they are lucky enough to have any at all?

Seems fair enough. And then we learn that the loudest (if not the most important) opposition to this aspect of reform is the unions, the same unions who are the most organized supporters of the public option and higher subsidies to enable ordinary people to pay for better insurance than they now have. What gives?

The Senator Max Baucus version of reform would "impose a 40 percent excise tax on insurance plans [provided by employers] that cost more than $8,000 a year for an individual or $21,000 for a family." (NY Times.) That looks like pretty fancy insurance to most of us. But House Democrats aren't buying this because labor says no way.

An article from the Las Vegas Sun points out that such an excise tax would be a levy on hotel maids!

Several years ago, when the powerful Culinary Union was negotiating new contracts on the Strip, its workers decided to forgo an initial pay increase to preserve their health care benefits.

The union offers its workers, who clean hotel rooms and work in casino restaurants, a great benefits package by many measures -- workers pay no premium from their paychecks for a policy that covers themselves and their families. Now, under the health care reform plan being debated in the Senate, those benefits could eventually be taxed to help raise money to cover the uninsured.

Unions are in the business of winning benefits from their members -- the people who pay dues to have strong representation in their dealings with powerful employers. In Las Vegas, the Culinary Workers Union is doing a good job, so members/workers have good benefits that bring them into a middle class status. That's as it should be.

But if unions are to survive and thrive, they also have to offer a vision of a better future to unorganized workers who aren't their members. They can't rest on their record or count only on their current members -- there aren't enough of those members and employers are bent on using every means at their disposal to ensure labor can't organize many more. And if other workers can't even hope that someday they could enjoy the kind of benefits that the organized sectors enjoy, why should they even consider joining up or looking to labor for leadership?

That's why you'll find the San Francisco Labor Council supporting Single Payer health care reform and why the AFL-CIO's Richard Trumka is one of the most important voices raised in support of the public option.

Labor is squeezed. The people who pay labor's bills are the current members and they have a right to expect their unions to look out for their immediate interests. That means things like defending them from an excise tax. Meanwhile, labor dies if it can't look out for the larger interests of all working people.

Most of the time, the unions look first to the interests of their current members -- and I can't say I entirely blame them. But a more equitable society requires that labor also look beyond current interests and fight for more widespread changes. Finding a right balance is the tightrope exercise that organized labor is always stuck with attempting.

UPDATE: Here's what labor is saying about the tax on expensive health care plans.


Canada life insurance said...

I really liked that "gold-plated" plans.Insurers who have so-called "Cadillac plans" have lower deductibles and strong benefits that cover even the most expensive treatments and procedures.
But I really dont know if I should believe Baucus numbers, they are always different. Will see....

Darlene said...

Sometimes unintended consequences ruin a good plan.

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