What the UAW should do now

Now that the 2007 auto talks are over, Ron Gettelfinger, the union negotiator, should heed the words of Ron Gettelfinger, the union president.

Before the United Auto Workers ever sat down with GM, Ford and Chrysler to work out a Voluntary Employees Beneficiary Association (VEBA) to provide health care for auto retirees, Gettelfinger, the union president, was telling everyone who would listen that the problems of health care cannot be solved at the bargaining table.

He was right then, and he is even more right now. VEBA (along with the two-tier wage) may have dramatically reduced the $30-an-hour labor cost differential between the Detroit Big Three and their chief competitors, the Japanese Big Three, but the basic problem of uncontrollable health care costs still remains unsolved.

The UAW’s VEBA will give the union some bargaining power to negotiate better prices on prescription drugs for its retired members, but it won’t have anywhere near the strength the federal government would have in negotiating drug prices for all Americans.

A VEBA will allow UAW leadership the ability to cut a better deal with a few selected health insurance companies on behalf of the union’s retired members. Meanwhile, most Americans, including the non-UAW family and friends of UAW members, will remain at the mercy of greedy, for-profit insurers that make money by providing the least amount of health care for the buck.

The UAW leadership’s job is not done despite its successful contract ratification votes. It has just begun.

The UAW’s VEBAs are going to be faced at some time, maybe sooner than later, with the falling worth of their funds (which are heavily invested in Big Three stocks) and soaring health care costs. At that point, auto retirees will be aiming their anger at union leaders for raising premiums, co-pays and deductibles or cutting coverage to balance the VEBA account.

Before that happens, Gettelfinger, the union president, must be reminded what he said before auto talks began and get the union to take a leading role in building the grassroots movement for single-payer, national health care.

The UAW needs to get back to its roots as a social union that fights for everybody. If it doesn’t, it’s going to fail in its goal of protecting the health care of its own dues-paying Big Three members.

It can’t afford to continue bemoaning the loss of two-thirds of its peak membership since 1979. It also can’t assume it doesn’t have any clout left. Five hundred thousand members, educated and mobilized, are a far more powerful force than 1,500,000 who are never called to battle.

As union leaders pass on the task of administering their VEBAs to Wall Street experts, they should focus their expertise on what they do best — getting the membership united and moving behind a common goal.

There is absolutely no downside to the UAW becoming an active player in building the grassroots health-care-for-all movement.

First, it could help bring union leadership, staff and members out of the doldrums they’ve been in since the loss of union jobs became alarmingly apparent to all. It could give the membership, staff and leadership that sense of pride and strength that earlier generations of UAW members felt when they were major players in fighting for social progress in America.

UAW activism also has the potential of bringing the large number of members who opposed VEBA and the two-tier wage back on the side of a union leadership that is ready and willing to take on the health care powers-that-be.

Taking a leadership role in the fight for winning health care for all would also provide the UAW with the best PR it could ever afford to buy. Just imagine being a UAW organizer and realizing your union’s reputation precedes you before you even knock on that potential new member’s door.

“Hi, I’m with the UAW — the union (that fights) for all workers.”

Dave Mortimer is a labor activist in Detroit.