Grand Rapids healthcare workers stand strong
Joel Wendland-Liu/PW

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Workers at the Grand Rapids call center of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan (BCBS) are fighting for their jobs. Since September 13 they and more than 1,000 clerical workers across the state of Michigan have been on strike demanding that the massive insurance company keep jobs in Michigan and negotiate for fair wages.

Workers say the major issue has been the rapid outsourcing of jobs in the healthcare clerical field to locations outside of the U.S. where workers can be paid much less, specifically in the Philippines and El Salvador. Other jobs have been sent to the “right to work” bastions of Texas and Maryland, moving the jobs at a Michigan-based insurance company away from Michigan.

One worker told People’s World that so many people have been laid off due to outsourcing that “the halls seem empty now compared to just a few years ago.” The company “goes to ‘opportunity deserts’ where there are no jobs except what BCBS brings them.”

Workers expressed no resentment towards workers in other locations–but they do not want their own jobs destroyed so the company can hyper-exploit people in other locations. Workers said that they provide a valued and professional service, whereas the “cheaper” third-party vendors cut corners, risking customers’ health and well being.

Call center workers are organized in UAW Locals 1781, 2145, 2256, and 2500. Despite the major victory of the widely publicized autoworkers’ strike, BCBS workers have fought bad faith stalling by the company.

For the first four weeks, they received no offers, and instead were told things were happening “behind the scenes.” Now, after months of struggle, workers have begun to feel that the company never had any serious intention of negotiating and continues to offer few if any concessions that could facilitate a return to work.

Workers added that BCBS CEO Darrel Middleton sent individual letters to the strikers offering some increase in pay, to sidestep negotiations with their union. However, many workers on the picket line feel that this fails to address the real concerns. As one BCBS worker stated, “Without us, none of those management positions would matter, since there would be no employees for them to manage!”

Focused on job security

Workers are focused on winning job security–which they stressed is good not only for them but for the community. A stable tax base and stable community are vital to the long-term health and development of cities like Grand Rapids.

Last week, a group from the Communist Party and Grand Rapids Union Education Partnership delivered material aid and solidarity and spoke to the workers about their struggle. Workers reported frustration with the unwillingness of the company to come to the table with any serious proposals to address their real concerns.

As an illustration of the importance of these jobs to the community, Ski’s Subs, Big O’s, and Local Mocha all have been donating food and supplies to the BCBS workers. During COVID, it was these stable essential jobs that helped these small businesses stay afloat. Management worked from home during the pandemic, but forced BCBS workers to go to the office, risking their health and safety.

“My parents’ generation,” said one worker close to retirement, “they fought for these things and had a good life. We need to get back to that old-school approach. People got complacent and forgot our parents only had those things because they fought.”

For local businesses, the presence of these workers was a godsend. The pandemic looms large over the strike, as workers feel slighted having been told they were “essential” but now their allegedly essential jobs are in jeopardy.

The vital importance of stable good jobs in Grand Rapids was something the mayor and city manager celebrated when the building where BCBS was headquartered was leased. They arrived to give speeches about the great stable jobs, yet now that the workers are out on strike to save these jobs they are nowhere to be found.

BCBS has been downsizing in all locations, even as the ostensible “nonprofit” continues to rake in money. The company alleges that due to COVID-19, dropping enrolments in their plans, and a weakening investment portfolio, they can no longer afford to support their staff, having lost over $700 million in 2022. Yet the net revenue and full assets for the company, despite these alleged poor conditions, remain enormous.

While $700 million seems like a big number, BCBS is a massive financial institution with an enterprise revenue of $32.8 billion. They can afford to provide stable jobs and good incomes for their workers. CEO Daniel Loep certainly makes a good living–$16.9 million in total compensation for 2022 alone.

As with other recent strikes, the two-tier wage system designed to pit older workers against younger workers is also a point of contention. Active workers find themselves struggling to afford the very insurance plans they sell and service, and the company removed retirement health insurance as a benefit over a decade ago. Like in many jobs, workers find themselves unable to enjoy the products they produce.

Still, there is a tremendous amount of optimism and fighting spirit on the picket line. Workers expressed excitement about the leadership of UAW President Shawn Fain.

They recommend citizens in solidarity reach out to BCBS on social media, especially TikTok, to demand the company negotiate in good faith and let them know when you call in you want to speak to a UAW-represented employee.

They also recommended speaking to your representative and contacting the governor. Gov. Whitmer is known to be a close friend of the Blue Cross Blue Shield leadership and the insurance industry in general. BCBS UAW workers hope to put pressure on her to intervene, hoping she could use those connections to help move the company to a contract.

UPDATE: “President Fain and I have agreed in principle on the construct of a new collective bargaining agreement that would deliver significant income and job security for our unionized workforce,” said BCBSM President and CEO Daniel J. Loepp. “On Wednesday, our bargaining teams will meet to formalize our agreement – bringing our employees one step closer to returning to work. I congratulate and thank President Fain for reaching out and working directly with me to get us to the starting line of the ratification process.”

“Our members have proven that when workers stick together, they can achieve historical gains at the bargaining table,” said UAW Secretary-Treasurer Margaret Mock. “There were difficult times during this strike, especially with the cold weather, but our members never gave up hope and they continued to stand with one another for as long as it took to enable our bargaining team to win an equitable contract that our members deserve.”

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Ryan K
Ryan K

Writes from Michigan in solidarity with BCBS UAW workers.

James B
James B

Writes from Michigan in solidarity with BCBS UAW workers.