AFL-CIO heads off health care fight by criticizing, not dumping, Affordable Care Act

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Multi-employer plans covering millions threatened

LABORERS President Terry O’Sullivan
LABORERS President Terry O’Sullivan

By Mark Gruenberg

PAI Staff Writer

Los Angeles (PAI) —AFL-CIO leaders headed off a knock-down drag-out fight over the Affordable Care Act – the Obama Administration’s signature 2010 health care law – “Obamacare” as the Republicans have slandered it – that organized labor strongly supported – with a compromise resolution that specifies the act’s ills and puts the administration on notice they must be fixed.

But if they aren’t fixed, Laborers President Terry O’Sullivan said, the ACA should be dumped.

The health care fight was the most open controversy at the four-day convention here last month.

A compromise also headed off another battle, where the building trades unions questioned the role and power of non-union groups – particularly environmentalists – in labor’s councils.

Complaints about lack of protection against inter-union raiding were diverted to the federation’s executive council, with a February 2014 reporting deadline.

COULDN’T BE AVOIDED

But the health care fight couldn’t be headed off.

The resolution and several union leaders said administration’s interpretation of the ACA would virtually trash multi-employer health care plans, which cover 20 million people -- workers, retirees and their families -- nationwide.

Those plans, prevalent in construction, but present in other industries – such as food processing and seafaring – let joint union-management boards run health care plans that cover workers who frequently shift from job site to job site in an industry.

 “If the ACA is not fixed, if it destroys the health and welfare funds we fought for, it needs to be repealed!” O’Sullivan roared.  “The proud men and women we represent cannot be collateral damage!” of the health care law.

“The ACA as it currently stands is not meeting its promise,” added Electrical Workers (IBEW) President Ed Hill, whose union and five others openly wrote congressional leaders saying they must fix the health care law.

‘MAKE IT OR BREAK IT’

 “This is make or break for a lot of unions, not just the building trades,” warned Joe Nigro of the Sheet Metal Workers.

“A resolution is a piece of paper and may offend a lot of politicians, but a labor movement is run by leaders who represent working men and women…You let the ACA bill go through like this and you won’t need a room a quarter of this size” for the next federation convention four years from now, he added.

“We have to follow this with action,” declared Unite Here President D. Taylor, after reminding delegates of ACA’s benefits – and of exceptions Obama already “illegally” granted to businesses, congressional staffers and to some religious-run enterprises.

Dissent also came from those who want to go further.

DOWNPLAYS SINGLE PAYER

Though both federation President Richard Trumka and Professional and Technical Engineers President Greg Junemann said the eventual end of the health care fight should be is single-payer government-run national health care, the compromise downplays that goal.

The other dissenter was Katharyn Donahue of the California Nurses Association (CNA)/ National Nurses Organizing Committee (NNOC).  Her union stayed away from the convention until its final session due to, among other issues, disagreement about the ACA.  The group is part of National Nurses United, has been one of labor’s most ardent advocates of single-payer, which 21 unions endorsed before the fed’s 2009 convention.

“The ACA does not solve the health care crisis facing all of the people, not just union people,” Donahue declared.  “It will not improve access to health care” and “will not remove health care from collective bargaining.”

Her union provided the scattered “no” votes when convention delegates approved the health care resolution by voice vote.

DEMANDS CHANGES

The resolution specifies, among other things, that:

• The fed backs single-payer – along with other alternatives it OKd in 2009.

• Demands Congress amend the ACA unless the act is “administered in a manner that preserves the high-quality coverage” of multi-employer plans.

• Says the multi-employer plans “should have access to the ACA’s premium tax credits and cost-sharing reductions…just as for-profit insurance companies will.”  The difference between the two has been the big problem in private talks Trumka and other union leaders have had with White House staffers.  The White House has stonewalled.

• Says workers toiling more than 20 hours a week must be covered by ACA’s employer responsibility rules.  The ACA now sets the lower limit at 30 hours per week. Several speakers at the convention said private firms – and some state and local governments – are racing to cut full-timers to 29 hours, to get out from under the act.

• Declares the employer responsibility rules should extend to construction companies with at least five employees, not 50.  The 50-worker rule would exempt the overwhelming majority of construction firms, building trades leaders say.

• Reiterates unions’ strong opposition to taxing health care benefits.  Obama strong-armed the AFL-CIO, at the end of the 2010 health care fight, into accepting such a tax on so-called “Cadillac” plans, many of them gained in bargaining, in 2018.

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