Friday, January 29, 2010

The Politics of Healthcare Failure

Organized labor's unfortunate role

At this very moment in time, lots of people seem to be feeling that our country is ungovernable. Even a reasonable start at healthcare reform, which seemed so very doable just a year ago, appears out of the question. The anger and cynicism of ordinary working people who have morphed over the last 40 years from lunch pail Democrats to Reagan Republicans to foot soldiers in the tea-party movement, seen in the context of falling real wages, underwater mortgages and failing public institutions like mass transit and public schools, makes sense.

Ordinarily, I confine my j'accuse to militarism, capitalism and their corporate agents, but it might also make sense to take a look at what appears to be the recent tactical failure of organized labor and the role of unions like Service Employees International Union (SEIU) in this summer's missed opportunity for healthcare reform. It's true, of course, the union movement is a pale shadow of the powerful entity it became (despite occasional setbacks) during the middle 40 years of the last century. A strongly negative critique of unions, coming from a sometime union member and long-time ardent supporter may have a kind of "piling on" flavor, but so it goes.

Unions played a leading role in establishing the eight-hour day, the five-day week, Social Security, civil rights, Medicare and other socially and broadly important advances, but business unionism, the prevailing practice after World War II for all but a few unions (e.g., the UAW and the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers) took the AFL-CIO out of the broader progressive movement for the last 30, or so, years. And, even before that, the AFL-CIO's internal red-hunting and collaboration with the U.S. Cold War-agenda undermined the entire American Left.

Five or six years ago, Andy Stern (president of SEIU) and his Change to Win initiative seemed to be leading labor back to the critical point position of a broader and growing progressive movement. The chief evidence for that has been the forceful union push for national healthcare. But, in the end, at the cost of a decent healthcare bill that never actually materialized but would, I think, already have passed the House and Senate, unions decided to come down on the side of the narrowly defined economic interests of their members by absolutely opposing a tax on "Cadillac" healthcare coverage. That union leaders would define and protect their members interests in the most parochial way has been obvious since the summer, even if it did not play a significant role in the public debate at the time. In that light, the behaviors of senators like Nelson and Lieberman, who decided that they, too, should, and could, get a little more for their own constituents makes perfect sense.

Had Stern and other leaders taken the long-term view that the eventual demise of employer-provided health coverage needs, in the interests of union members and everyone else, to be carefully managed to its extinction rather than bitterly defended to the last detail, several things might have happened:

One, Ted Kennedy would have gotten to vote to pass a better plan;

two, the House and Senate plans would have resembled each other more closely and differences might have been resolved in conference in a timely way;

three, unions could have expected more favorable treatment for the other items on their agenda, like a more sympathetic and effective National Labor Relations Board (though the Employee Free Choice Act never had a chance);

four, their own members would have suffered little or no actual economic loss (the details of which could have been negotiated) and, living in a world in which their own extended families and communities are deeply and adversely affected by the current healthcare system, likely would have applauded passage of a good bill;

five, the resulting effects would have begun to improve the global competitiveness of major manufacturing sectors (like auto);

and, six, it would have made Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts far less likely.

Unfortunately, Stern, the most pivotal union figure in this scenario, was busy visiting the White House (22 times in the past year, I heard), continuing to position himself in his own mind, I'd guess, as the most powerful and creative union leader of what turns out to be the most tediously long century (the 20th, about 110 years, or so), in American history.

No comments:

Post a Comment