UAW: Universal health care now

DETROIT – As contract talks between 300,000 United Auto Workers (UAW) members and the Big Three automakers are set to begin in July, three pressing issues are on the minds of autoworkers: health care, pensions, and jobs.

In the pages of Solidarity, the UAW’s magazine, and recently at the Detroit Economic Forum, UAW head Ron Gettlefinger spoke bluntly about the significance of health care.

“A lot of people are curious about how we are going to solve the problem of rising health care costs during this year’s auto talks,” Gettlefinger told the Detroit Economic Club. “The answer is we’re not. It’s a national problem that demands a national solution.”

Gettlefinger and the UAW have long stood by the demand for a universal, comprehensive single-payer health care program. “You can’t fix the health-care crisis at the bargaining table,” Gettlefinger insisted.

Gettlefinger also rejected the habit of many employers of shifting costs of health insurance premiums to workers. “Cost-shifting does nothing to contain rising health-care costs or to improve the quality of health care,” he warned.

A single-payer plan would also reduce the costs dramatically for any single business, health care advocates say. The Big Three clearly have something to gain from strongly supporting and campaigning for the health-care plan endorsed by the UAW.

Also of interest to autoworkers are the questions of pensions and job security. All three of the auto makers are predicting profits for 2003. Much of this came at the expense of tens of thousands of layoffs and deep cost-cutting measures over the last two years. Despite the recession, Ford is predicting $1.25 billion in profits and the other two car companies also predict strong showings. Workers wonder if these numbers, the results of their hard work and sacrifices, will translate into keeping existing health care plans, continued strength of pensions, and more job security. They also want to see the Big Three go to bat for a better, universal health care system.

The author can be reached at jwendland@politicalaffairs.net