Labor Unions’ Evolving Fight for Medicare For All

Interview with Mark Dudzic, national coordinator of the Labor Campaign for Single Payer, conducted by Scott Harris

In the weeks before the Nevada caucuses, the powerful 60,000-member Culinary Workers Union announced that it wouldn’t be endorsing a candidate in the state’s Feb. 22 Democratic presidential primary. But the union’s leaders distributed information to its members warning that Bernie Sanders’ support for Medicare For All threatened their members’ healthcare benefits. Culinary Workers union members had gone on strike for six long years in the 1990s to win significant wage increases, job security, pension and good healthcare benefits.

However, after the primary votes were counted, it appears that many union members defied their leaders’ direction and voted for Bernie Sanders, in support of the Vermont senator’s best-known policy proposal, Medicare For All. These members assessed Sanders’ plan and came to believe they would have more comprehensive and permanent health insurance with a universal government plan, and would no longer be forced to trade wages and other benefits for health care with employers at the bargaining table.

The Lancet, one of the nation’s leading medical journals, recently published a study by Yale epidemiologists that found Medicare For All would provide universal health care, while saving 68,000 lives and $450 billion annually.  Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Mark Dudzic, national cordinator of the group Labor Campaign for Single Payer who talks about his group’s work on shoring up labor support for Medicare For All this election year.

MARK DUDZIC: So we launched the Labor Campaign for Single Payer in 2009 just as we were getting ready to debate healthcare reform under President Obama. And you know, we wanted to have a voice of grassroots labor represented in that debate and really demand that they put single-payer on the table. And since then we’ve really grown into a very substantial group of unions and worker organizations that are just pushing for labor to take the lead in the fight for healthcare for all. We have 15 national union affiliates and dozens of local and regional unions around the country that are pushing this fight. Medicare for All is now a policy supported by unions that represent a majority of America’s unionized workers. It has been for the last year. Since a number of unions endorsed the latest version of the Medicare for All Act that was introduced by Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal and Congresswoman (Debbie) Dingell last January, February.

So that’s the majority position in the labor movement. And historically that’s been our position. We wandered in the wilderness from the mid-1990s up through, you know, last year where there was a big break in the labor unity around healthcare reform and the section of the labor movement decided to endorse the Clinton healthcare plan in 1993. And, you know, so we’ve basically kind of reunified around an understanding that Medicare for All is the solution. And you know, there’s still some debate about how you transition and what supplemental benefits need to be attached to that and things like that. But that is the overwhelming majority position within the labor movement these days.

SCOTT HARRIS: Maybe before we kind of get to where many unions are at, including the Culinary Workers Union in Nevada, we can talk about the current importance of health insurance in union contract negotiations these days.

MARK DUDZIC: You know, this is the number one issue in bargaining and it has been for a number of years now. Who’s going to pay for health care? Is an employer gonna pay? Or is the worker gonna pay? How are they going to share the costs? Who gets to design the plan? You know, these are all issues that workers nowhere else in the world have to deal with. You know, somehow your employment relationship defines what kind of health care you get and how much you pay for it. And the benefits and the design of the plan. So, you know, luckily the union workers at least have the ability to bargain over their healthcare costs. Ninety percent of workers in this country basically have to take what the boss offers them, which really lends a lot of questionability to this claim that workers have choice in their healthcare coverage.

But even union workers with strong unions, they have to constantly sacrifice wages and other benefits at the bargaining table in order to, maintain decent healthcare coverage. It’s the biggest cause of strikes and lockouts and concession bargaining and it’s driving wage stagnation throughout the country. Wages in the U.S. for workers have been frozen or nearly frozen for almost 40 years while healthcare costs eat a bigger and bigger proportion of employment costs. So, you know, we got to get health care. Break that link between healthcare and employment and get healthcare off the bargaining table.

SCOTT HARRIS: Mark, one of the things that you hear expressed by some union leaders and activists is that they’re fearful that if Medicare for All comes on the scene that the benefits that they fought for will disappear into thin air and there’ll be no benefits to replace it. I know you have a different position on this and that Bernie Sanders, you know, certainly leading promoter of Medicare for All has talked about having provisions in the Medicare for All bill that would address union contracts and the need to renegotiate those contracts so that benefits would be replaced if healthcare was off the table.

MARK DUDZIC: Yes. Bernie has said that he’ll incorporate that language into his legislation. I think in general, depending on the contract, labor law would require a rebargaining over the allocation of those monies. But you know, look, there’s going to be a fight and I actually welcome the opportunity to fight with employers over who gets the savings from a national healthcare system. There will be a fight. Employers will try to hold on to those monies. But you know, even if we lose that fight, which is highly unlikely because the actual passage of Medicare for All will empower unions and strengthen their bargaining position. But even if we lose that fight, we are still better off than we are today. We still don’t have to bargain for future healthcare. We don’t have to put future wage increases into the world’s most expensive and inefficient healthcare system. And, when our members go on strike, when they get laid off, when their children age out, you know, they’re guaranteed healthcare coverage. So that’s kind of a dead end position to take. I think the position to take is let’s figure out now what we need to do so that we can recoup all of the money that we’ve sunk it into healthcare over more than a generation of collective bargaining.

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