President Barack Obama tried to convince top union leaders to drop labour’s opposition to taxing workers’ health care benefits at a meeting at the White House Monday.
But if remarks earlier in the day by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka are any indication, he did not get very far.
Obama hosted Trumka and nine other union leaders, Change To Win Chair Anna Burger, Steel Workers President Leo Gerard, Communications Workers President Larry Cohen, Teachers President Randi Weingarten, AFSCME President Gerry McEntee, Laborers President Terry O’Sullivan, Teamsters President James Hoffa and SEIU President Andrew Stern. The identity of the tenth leader was not immediately available.
After the meeting, the White House issued this statement: ‘The President and labour leaders had an exchange of views and had a productive discussion about their shared commitment to health reform that will lower health costs for American workers and their families, protect them from unfair insurance company practices, and enable employers to create jobs and raise wages.’
The union leaders did not make any statements following the meeting, but in a speech to the National Press Club earlier in the day, Trumka declared that unions are dead set against a key provision in the Senate’s version of health care reform.
Taxing 40% of the value of workers’ health insurance above minimums of $8,500 yearly for an individual and $23,000 for a family was not acceptable.
‘Thanks to the Senate rules, the appalling irresponsibility of the Senate Republicans and the power of the wealthy among some Democrats, the Senate bill drives a wedge between the middle class and the poor’, Trumka said.
‘Instead of taxing the rich’ – as the House of Representatives passed health care revision does – ‘the Senate bill taxes the middle class by taxing workers’ health plans.’
And it’s ‘not just union members’ health care. Most of the 31 million insured employees who would be hit by the tax are not union members,’ he added.
Responding to questions after the speech, Trumka went even farther: ‘The Senate bill is inadequate and does not deserve the support of working men and women.’
In his speech, Trumka also blasted lawmakers for lacking the political courage to address the jobs crisis, saying, ‘Too many people in Washington seem to think that now that we have bailed out the banks, everything will be okay.
‘Why is helping banks a matter of urgency, but unemployment is something we just have to live with?
‘Why don’t we make anything in America anymore? And why is it so hard to pass a health care bill that guarantees Americans healthy lives instead of guaranteeing insurance companies healthy profits?’
On Tuesday, several key US union leaders warned that the health bill’s final outlines could severely dampen their enthusiasm for the Democratic ticket in this year’s elections in the United States.
Obama invited the 10 US labour leaders to the White House to discuss the negotiations aimed at reconciling the Senate and House of Representatives bills, which are not heading in organised labour’s direction in the three areas that the unions identified as priorities.
The final bill will not include the House’s government-run insurance plan, or ‘public option’; it will probably include the Senate’s new tax on high-cost health plans that could affect many union members; and its penalties for employers who do not provide insurance coverage will probably be closer to the more lenient terms in the Senate bill.
Trumka said that discontent with the final bill, when combined with a general perception that Obama and Congress have not responded adequately to the popular demands of US workers caught in the midst of the economic crisis, could demoralise his members.
The risk, he said, was a replay of the Democratic party failure in the 1994 elections, after the passage of NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) and other measures that disappointed workers.
Referring to that time, Trumka said: ‘there was no way to persuade enough working Americans to go to the polls when they couldn’t tell the difference between the two parties.
‘Now, more than ever, we need the boldness and the clarity we saw in our president during the campaign in 2008.’
But Trumka stopped short of his September threat that the AFL-CIO might not support the final bill. After all, he said, labour has been seeking health-care reform for decades.
But individual members could sit on their hands and not vote Democrat, he warned the Obama government.
‘A bad bill could have that kind of effect,’ he told reporters. ‘People could stay home. It could suppress votes.’
Organised labour played a crucial role in the election of Barack Obama in 2008, turning out members in key states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania.
Though Obama has pleased union leaders on several fronts, he has done little to push labour’s biggest priority, the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to organise.
In 2008, Obama rallied union members’ support by repeatedly attacking a proposal by his Republican rival Senator John McCain to lift the tax exemption for employer-provided health benefits.
Now, the White House is strongly supporting the Senate provision to tax benefits above a certain value, $23,000 for a family plan and $8,500 for an individual one.
Critics note that the tax will fall on many health plans that are expensive not because they are lavish ‘Cadillac plans’ but because of an employer’s location or the age of its workforce.
Unions prefer the House of Representatives’ approach: an income tax surcharge on families earning more than $1 million.
Although firefighting is one ‘high-risk profession’ exempted from the tax, firefighters union head Harold Schaitberger said he was still strongly against it.
‘It’s terrible policy and absolutely disastrous politics,’ he said. ‘This is failed promises. We went out and worked hard to deliver our membership. . . This is a political nightmare for the mid-terms (elections).’
Meanwhile, nearly 150 workers at a Michigan auto parts manufacturer could be getting their jobs back – along with back pay – after a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) administrative law judge (ALJ) ruled they were illegally fired.
In early 2008, the workers, members of UAW Local 822, were in negotiations for a new contract with Douglas Autotech Corp in Bronson.
In May, according to a press release from the NLRB, the union called a brief strike but quickly realised that the strike was not lawful because certain timely notice was not given.
The union made an unconditional offer to return to work on the third day of the strike.
But the employer then locked out the workers but resumed negotiations. In August, the company dismissed the entire unionised workforce, claiming the brief strike had cost them the protection of the National Labor Relations Act.
In his decision Administrative Law Judge Paul Buxbaum writes the employer lost its right to fire the workers for the illegal strike when managers responded to their return-to-work offer with mixed signals – a lockout and continued bargaining.
By belatedly choosing to terminate the entire bargaining unit, the employer chose what can only be described as the labour relations equivalent of a nuclear option – a flagrantly egregious and unlawful course of conduct.
Mary Ellis, president of Local 822, said the company could do the right thing and stop fighting it but she doesn’t expect it.
Douglas has probably spent more money keeping the workers out than they would have if they had settled it long ago, Ellis said.
Douglas Autotech has until February 2nd to appeal the ruling.