Autoworkers and health care

People’s Health

The April 11 issue of Business Week had the following headline: “Will the UAW cut GM some slack?” adding, “The union faces a tough call on whether to help carmaker pare health care costs.”

A casual reader might conclude it’s the autoworkers themselves who are responsible for the skyrocketing costs of health care, and not the medical-industrial complex, which has been making gargantuan profits.

Unfortunately, it isn’t just Business Week. Virtually every media outlet says the same thing: It’s the fault of workers and all other patients that health care is so costly. Why doesn’t everyone just stop getting sick?

Autoworkers know better, and, as a case in point, UAW President Ronald Gettelfinger recently called on Congress to enact a universal, single-payer health care system. The union has argued for some time that only a national health program can solve the crisis of spiraling medical costs in the U.S.

A good part of the top brass in the auto industry has reached the same conclusion. Each car manufactured in the USA has a health benefits “surcharge” of about $1,000, making them less competitive with their rivals overseas. In Europe and Asia that’s not the case because national health programs are the norm there.

At the beginning of the 1970s, then-UAW President Walter Reuther, reversing his major mistake of 25 years before, called on Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) to make national health insurance a keystone of that new Congress. And, in fact, as the Nixon years morphed into the Ford and then Carter years, Congress deliberated on the Kennedy-Griffiths National Health Security Act.

Even the ever-cautious George Meany, then head of the AFL-CIO, gave some support to this effort, but when push came to shove, he turned his back on it. Rumors were that the building trades were fearful of losing their negotiated health benefits should a national program offer less than what they already had.

This same dilemma surfaced with President Bill Clinton’s health plan. Significant labor and industry support came to Clinton’s side. Again, the UAW and the auto industry were among its leading supporters.

Clinton’s plan ultimately failed. As flawed as it was, it was a victim of two forces: the looming right-wing takeover of Congress, led by Newt Gingrich, and, once again, opposition from unions who feared they stood to lose more than gain.

Today the UAW is fighting to hold the line on health benefits, even in the face of GM’s recently announced losses. At the same time, they, along with other unions, will likely ratchet up their support for real national health program.

Such a strategy must be enriched by lessons from the past. First among these: All labor-

negotiated health benefits must be protected from any national health program that is enacted by Congress. Once that protection is firmly in place, labor can throw its full weight behind its passage.

Let’s get to work.