Why Health Care Strikes Should Demand “Health Care For All,” Not Just “Hands Off My ‘Middle Class’ Benefits”
For two weeks in August, thousands of Verizon strikers provided an inspiring display of picket-line militancy and resistance to contract concessions. From Massachusetts to Virginia, members of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) reached out to labor and community allies to help counter the barrage of mass media and company propaganda about the strike. Throughout the U.S., other workers showed their solidarity by joining consumer-oriented protests at Verizon Wireless, which operates retail outlets nationwide.
During this work stoppage, just as in past contract fights at Verizon (and its predecessors like NYNEX), IBEW and CWA members were unfairly stigmatized as greedy and unreasonable. Why? Because they don’t want to make costly pay-roll deductions for their health care like 130,000 non-union employees do at Verizon, along with almost everyone else in the country.
In YouTube videos, newspaper, radio, and TV interviews, and many of their own Facebook postings (see We Are One! Ready to Strike at Verizon, 2011 (IBEW-CWA), strikers provided their own eloquent and spirited testimony about what’s at stake in this on going contract struggle–for themselves, their families, and all American workers. But there’s one area of union “messaging”—as the PR consultants call it—that could have been (and still needs to be) much better.
In a four month strike against NYNEX in 1989, CWA and IBEW resisted similar pressure for premium sharing with a bold counter-demand: “Health Care for All, Not Health Cuts at NYNEX!”—a slogan emblazoned everywhere, that linked workplace and political struggle in a very resonant way. The unions argued that forcing workers with better health coverage to pay more for their benefits would do nothing to curb medical cost inflation or alleviate the plight of millions of un- and under-insured Americans. Projecting this message with the help of health care reform groups enabled the strikers to publicly position themselves as fighters for universal coverage, not just the maintenance of their own “Cadillac plan” (as leading Democrats like Barack Obama have called it).
During the 1989 strike, the retaliatory cancellation of employer-provided medical coverage became a further “teachable moment” about the virtues of a “Medicare for All” system. With a tax-supported single-payer health insurance system, medical benefits would no longer be a bargaining issue. The need to strike over this issue would be eliminated. Collective bargaining could focus, instead, on contract improvements like better wage increases—often sacrificed now to divert money into struggling union benefit plans.
If the latest Verizon strike had lasted longer, medical benefits for 45,000 telephone workers and their families would have been cut off again, on August 31. This looming management threat clearly demonstrates what’s wrong with our current job-based system of healthcare, even as “reformed” by the Obama Administration in 2010 (and in Massachusetts several years earlier).
As long as medical coverage is still job based, employers will have a dominant role in determining its cost, scope, and very existence. Workers will risk losing access to their existing coverage any time they are laid off, change jobs, or go on strike—to maintain affordable health care! The fight to change that flawed system is far from over which is why every strike should be used for union membership and public education about the better way forward, for all workers, whether unionized or not.
As an active or retired CWA staff member, Steve Early has been involved in ten telephone company strikes or contract campaigns since 1983. He is a longtime single-payer supporter who has written about the 1989 NYNEX strike and other CWA work stoppages in three books, The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor (Haymarket Books, 2011), Embedded With Organized Labor (Monthly Review Press, 2009) and The Encyclopedia of Strikes in American History, an edited collection.(M. E. Sharpe, 2009)