Why did the UFT leadership kill the New York Health Act?

by Peter Allen-Lamphere, Math/Technology Teacher and Chapter Leader in Washington Heights

The New York State legislative session closes today with no movement for the New York State Health Act, the Medicare-for-All bill that has over 33 co-sponsors in the state senate (a majority). 

Teachers have petitioned (you can still sign!), called Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins, and protested in the streets.  Former teacher turned State Senator Jabari Brisport even dressed up as a fire-fighter.  But the state political leadership has turned a deaf ear.  Why? A large part of the opposition comes from public sector unions in New York City, led by its Municipal Labor Council – among the loudest voices of which in opposition to the bill, was UFT President Micheal Mulgrew.  

Blatantly flaunting established union policy in favor of the act, President Mulgrew has criticized it for providing worse coverage than existing plans and replacing hard-fought existing benefits.  “We will not give away tens of millions of dollars,” he has exclaimed. This is true, of course, but not in the way Mulgrew meant it. The union leadership benefits from large salaries and patronage jobs by managing close to half a billion dollars of Welfare Fund benefits (with 10% overhead spent on “administration”).  But rank and file members do not benefit from the competitive insurance market that ends up forcing worse and worse coverage on all of us. 

Health care has been the source of over $4 billion dollars in cost savings givebacks in the 2014 and 2018 contracts. These givebacks funded retroactive pay raises, but teachers are now paying the costs in $150 ER copays & $50 to visit urgent care. The recent Medicare Advantage debacle, where the union leadership has stabbed its own retiree base in the back by offering them up to the private sector vultures, is another example. Mulgrew complains monthly about fighting against greedy hospital corporations over expensive billing practices but then turns around and reinforces the private insurance system that enables that greed to begin with.

It turns out that the union leadership’s claims about why they oppose the New York Health Act are demonstrably false. A memo from as far back as 2018, from the main sponsors of the bill, spells this out. 

In it, the bills’ authors carefully address each of the main critiques from the union leadership. 

  • Would benefits worsen? No: the NYHA specifies that everything covered in the state public employee benefits plan is covered, including dental, vision, drugs and long term care.  No public employee in the state currently has access to long term care benefits.
  • Would payroll taxes that are used to fund the bill fall on city workers, who currently get health care for free (80% are paid by the employer)? No: a guarantee that the city would pay 100% of the costs could be written into the legislation.
  • Would we “lose tens of millions of dollars” of benefits we struggled and bargained for? No: the value of the health care saving from the act could be mandated to be passed on in wages and benefits. 
  • Would out-of-state employees lose their coverage? Of course not: they would still be covered by existing collectively bargained benefits.

The memo continues on to demolish one-by-one all of the arguments against the act.  It was written almost 3 years ago, in 2018. 

Memo from authors of the New York Health Act to the Municipal Labor Council – Download full text below

Basically the only argument left to UFT leaders is the one of simple selfishness – we got it, and therefore no one else should have it.  Instead of working to expand access to health care for the students and communities we serve, our union is fighting to restrict access to a minority of unionized employees.  Unions should advocate for the entire working class, not just their own members. 

Of course, the fact that they might lose control of lucrative welfare funds, or no longer be able to get sports tickets with fancy law firms (or insurance executives?) may play a role in the unions’ decision making.  (The unwillingness to reimagine welfare funds as providing things other than dental, vision or pharmaceuticals is stunning.  Mental health care anyone?). 

Union leaders argue that they would lose control over the administration of health care (they say employers and unions would hold only 5 seats on the 31 member governing board), and that the bill would undercut the “pivotal role of public sector labor unions” play in providing benefits.

However, the key factor may be that the union leadership depends on the health benefits to maintain its legitimacy.  By identifying itself with the eyeglasses, teeth cleanings and parental leave received by its members, the union helps maintain loyalty of members and help answer the question “why do I pay all these dues.” But this service model of unionism – cheapening union solidarity to a AAA membership – does injustice to the best traditions of the labor movement.  An injury to one is an injury to all is the essential slogan of the union tradition – and if so, then healthcare for only a few is an affront to all workers. Rather than trying to merely protect the fortress of our own benefits, our union should be fighting to expand them to everyone – this, in fact, will provide the best protection as these benefits become a society-wide norm, like Social Security, with a broad public base of support (or Medicare, for that matter!). 

However, the union leadership’s own self-interest has won out over the potential benefits to their own members or the schoolchildren of New York and their families. The New York Health act will not become law this year.

The wonderful thing is, as Knicks and Mets fans are always fond of saying, that there will always be next year. The NYHA garnered unprecedented legislative support in Albany this year, and there is no reason that there should be any less in the next legislative session. That gives our movement more time to educate coworkers, mobilize forces, hold pickets and demonstrations and put pressure on the union leadership, exposing their conflicted position. A contract demand for the upcoming 2022 round of bargaining could be that city officials lobby in concert with municipal unions for the passage of the NYHA – the bill would reduce red tape costs for city administration, anyway.  A movement that unites underinsured and non-unionized sections of our class along with the workers who have won the best protections and benefits is a recipe for a stronger base for organized labor that can win even more impressive victories. 

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