‘Medicare for All’ the defining issue for Democrats

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National Nurses United members show their support for Medicare for All

‘MEDICARE for All’ is shaping up to be one of the defining issues of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary campaign, with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren the leading candidates in favour, while former Vice President Joe Biden is the most prominent right-winger opposed.

The right-wingers are scraping and scratching around for evidence to back up their false claim that trade unionists are opposed to the universal provision of healthcare.

‘This plan that’s being offered by Senator Warren and Senator Sanders will tell those union members who gave away wages in order to get good healthcare that they’re going to lose their healthcare because Washington’s going to come in and tell them they got a better plan,’ Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan alleged at the last Democratic candidates debate on 31st July.

Biden, Ryan, Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, Michael Bennet and John Delaney have all invoked organised labour in recent debates and candidate forums to argue against mandatory single-payer health insurance.

Biden claimed Medicare for All would leave union members worse off by ‘stripping them of the health care benefits they painstakingly negotiated’.

Harris said after the debate at a forum in Nevada hosted by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME): ‘I’ve been listening to a lot of folks in labour who have said to me, “Look, we negotiated contracts where we’ve given up wages for these health care benefits, and under the Medicare for All plan, we would lose them or we would be certainly in fear of losing them.”’

Bernie Sanders, who wrote the Senate Medicare for All bill and made the policy the centrepiece of his 2016 presidential bid, said at the AFSCME forum: ‘We will do what every other major country on Earth does – guarantee all of you health care so you can sit down and negotiate decent wage increases.’

Sanders’ argument resonated with many labour leaders.

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, who is leading contract negotiations with 10 airlines, said any candidate who invokes unions to argue against Medicare for All ‘doesn’t understand how labour works’.

‘I find it offensive that candidates would pit union members against non-union members on this issue,’ she said.

‘When we’re able to hang on to the health plan we have, that’s considered a massive win.

‘But it’s a huge drag on our bargaining. So our message is: Get it off the table.’

The National Nurses United has been on the front lines fighting for Medicare for All, while the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which has more than 300,000 members, including thousands of medical workers at the Department of Veterans Affairs, is also a supporter.

‘Not only have health insurance premiums risen every year for the 30 years I’ve been involved with the union, there’s also been steady cost-shifting from the government to the workers,’ said Jacqueline Simon, the AFGE’s public policy director.

‘We recognise that the enormous premiums federal employees are required to pay are far higher than what they’d pay in new taxes under Medicare for All. They would come out ahead, unequivocally.’

Leaders of unions that have signed on to Sanders’ Medicare for All bill and its House counterpart say the benefits of a reshaped health system would extend far beyond their membership and that they have a duty to advocate for the broader population.

‘We are supporting any policy proposal or legislation that moves us in the direction of universal coverage,’ Leslie Frane, executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union, said.

However, the leadership of the umbrella body of the trade union movement is equivocating. ‘While we would like to see universal health care, we want to make sure that there is a role for employer-bargained plans in that plan,’ AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told reporters after the second Democratic debate.

Though the AFL-CIO voted in 2017 on a resolution to ‘move expeditiously toward a single-payer system, like Medicare for All,’ Trumka recently endorsed a much narrower coverage expansion plan: lowering Medicare’s eligibility age to 55.

Still others who haven’t yet taken a position say they’re wrestling with the question of who the winners and losers would be under a single-payer plan as the gig economy continues to envelop the workforce.

Lowell Peterson, the executive director at Writers Guild of America, East, said: ‘There’s a concern that an ill-executed Medicare for All plan could be a step backward for a lot of union members, who sacrificed a lot in negotiations to bolster their own benefits.

‘But many of our members work in more precarious gigs where the employer-sponsored benefits aren’t all that great, where people are being forced to pay enormous premiums for crappy high-deductible plans.

‘So we certainly shouldn’t spend any political capital defending that stuff.’

The Biden-backing leadership of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) are the only union leaders to have actually come out openly against Sanders’ bill.

IAFF General President Harold Schaitberger said: ‘We’ve spent a lot of time and effort developing plans that recognise the uniqueness of our members’ profession, the health consequences and exposures related to our work, including behavioural health issues like PTSD, drug addiction and alcohol abuse.

‘We question whether a government-wide, government-run plan for everyone would ever be able to recognise those unique circumstances.’

The IAFF endorsed Biden in April, and Schaitberger said: ‘The union would have difficulty supporting a Democratic candidate who ran on Medicare for All.’

But the leadership of the IAFF is the extreme exception, not the rule

Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.7 million-member American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which endorsed Medicare for All earlier this year, said: ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we had a single, universal access point for health care and we could instead spend our time bargaining for lower class sizes and wrap around services and increases to people’s pay?

‘Wouldn’t it be great if it wasn’t always dominated by health care fights?’

In addition to representing teachers, the AFT is the second-largest union of nurses and other health care workers in the country.

  • On Monday August 12, 2019 the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades, (IUPAT), released the following statement in response to last Wednesday’s raids conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the Koch Foods Inc and Pecos Food Inc plants in Mississippi, including those represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, (UFCW).

‘Today, it is 680 poultry workers and their families who were impacted; tomorrow it could be construction workers and their families.

‘We, the IUPAT, stand in strong solidarity with these workers, their families, their union, and their communities.

‘It is no coincidence that ICE targeted these plants where hundreds of workers, despite their immigration status, challenged abusive workplace conditions.

‘It is a reminder to all of us, that this President is using immigration enforcement to target, retaliate, and attempt to kill worker organising.

‘The actions of the Trump Administration, days after the white supremacist attack that killed 22 people is part and parcel of what happened in El Paso. They are both acts of terror against working people.

‘In the labour movement, we know that racial solidarity and class struggle solidarity is what advances the rights of all workers in this country. We will not allow any vigilante, politician, government, or boss to divide us.

‘We must come together with our differences and confront our true enemies, those currently in power, who are making themselves wealthier every day we remain divided.’