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Unions and the Health Care Debate

Sam Gindin: Unions should have said "No" to concessions if they wanted to shape the health debate


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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. We’re talking today with Sam Gindin about the health-care struggle in the United States. Sam was for many years an assistant to the Canadian Auto Workers union and now teaches at York University. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So what do you make of the role of the unions in the health-care debate?

GINDIN: They clearly haven’t been able to change the agenda. I mean, they played a good role, I think, in the election of Obama. They took on a lot of the racism that did exist in the trade union movement. And it’s been a historical problem. They took that on during the election, including Trumka, the current head of, the new head of the AFL-CIO, I think quite courageously took that on, and I think it mattered very much. So the unions were very instrumental. I think they were crucial to the election of Obama. But just getting through the election and electing Obama doesn’t cut it. It’s not enough. I mean, this is a question of a longer-term decline in the trade-union movement and its inability to reverse that. And one of the things that I’d say that I think is really critical is to look back on some of the things that were happening before the election itself, because I think a crucial moment in the health-care issue was emerging when General Motors in particular, but other companies, were saying that they could no longer afford to pay for the health care that the workers had negotiated over the past half-century. And that was really an admission that the private welfare state in the United States didn’t work, that you just couldn’t negotiate these things and have the insurance. You could do it as long as there was a monopoly of American companies, but as you get to intensified competition it can’t work. Not because GM is mean and greedy, etcetera (that’s part of the story), but just because private companies couldn’t do this. And the question was: how would the union respond to that moment? ‘Cause GM itself was beginning to think in terms of maybe we need the socialization of these costs as well.

JAY: And said so publicly.

GINDIN: And said so.

JAY: And they compared their health-care costs in Canada and so on.

GINDIN: Yeah. And they had a very good statement in their annual reports on the importance of, significance of public health care. What the union should have said when General Motors demanded this is that we can’t give it to you, that this isn’t a problem we can solve in collective bargaining. This is a social problem, and it has to be solved nationally. We’re not going to give it to you. And had that happened, there would have been an enormous attack on the unions. They would have been accused of making General Motors go bankrupt and killing the industry. But it also would have meant that the union had a chance to speak nationally about this problem.

JAY: And they made this deal first, I think, with Ford, where they took the risk of the health-care plan [inaudible]

GINDIN: I shouldn’t say GM; I should say generally the auto industry, because it started with GM, and they went back to Ford where it was easier to get a deal. But what the unions should have emphasized, they should have said publicly, "We’re not going to do this." And when they were attacked for threatening the industry, they should have really emphasized that they’re speaking for the almost 50 million people who don’t have it, they’re speaking for everyone who’s about to lose it. And that would have been on the national agenda. I think this would have been one of those moments where you could have revived the labor movement as a leading social force in society. Instead what happens is the union concedes. And as soon as the union concedes, and then after the negotiations are over, it issues a good public statement. Nobody cares about the public statement. And once the union conceded, it gets off the agenda.

JAY: But you’re talking specifically an opportunity would have been during this time when the Obama administration—.

GINDIN: This is before the elections.

JAY: Another moment would have been during this period of bailout, if they’d said no then.

GINDIN: It’s a matter of saying no and forcing the issue at that time. And the critical moment earlier was, had they said no then, it also meant what happened when they said yes was that General Motors now saw a solution to its problem. It didn’t have to actually worry about supporting a national plan, ’cause it had some ideological problems in some of its connections to both the elite and its fear of how small business would attack it if it actually came out publicly. And General Motors isn’t going to lead these kinds of things. All you want from General Motors and expect is that you could get them to approve of it silently or make some statements. But once the union said, okay, we’ll take the risk for this, there’s no pressure on General Motors.

JAY: Let’s just explain to viewers who may not know this, just quickly, how did the union take the risk. What is that?

GINDIN: Okay. The way health care was funded was the companies put money into a fund. And it was just funded generally. It wasn’t an accumulated fund. It was just funded generally. Out of revenue they would fund a health care. And what General Motors said is: we will give the union a certain amount of money, and the union will from here on in administer the health-care plan. Which meant that, first of all, there wouldn’t be enough money in it; second of all, the union would have all the pressures to discipline their members; and third of all, that, again, you can’t solve these problems privately in that way—GM couldn’t solve it, and the union couldn’t. Once the union accepted this, it meant that General Motors had a solution. It didn’t even have to think in terms of maybe we can pawn this off on the state. So it was out of the ballgame, too. So it was a historic moment. But it also reflected a way of thinking. It reflected where the labor—you know, the point that the labor movement had reached, which is that the leadership was not thinking in terms of how can we possibly lead in the creation of a new kind of movement in this moment. But it also meant that the members weren’t organized so that they could really put that kind of pressure on their leadership so the leaders couldn’t give in in that way. So you had a lot of complaining about it, but it was generally the leaders did it, the members accepted it, and I think to a large extent that took it off the agenda in a serious way.

JAY: And in terms of where we’re at right now, it looks like the public option is either going to be so watered down or off the table completely. We’re going to be maybe looking at a regulated private plan with maybe a token triggered public option. Is it too late for the unions to do anything? And do they have any power to do anything? ‘Cause this administration doesn’t seem to listen to the unions very much.

GINDIN: Yeah, you know, I guess there can be debates about it. There’s all kinds of pockets of important resistance. I think we really have to come to grips with the fact that there isn’t any easy solution to this, and there isn’t any way to turn this around quickly without rebuilding the kind of movement that’s a social force for making this happen. And it isn’t going to come from the Democratic Party. It’s actually going to come from unions thinking about class in a much broader way, that the class doesn’t just mean the fellow people you work with on the assembly line; it means the working class as a whole, it means the people who are unemployed, it means poor people, and it means the rest of your life outside the workplace. There’s a million other things that are so important, obviously—health care and education and the environment. And until we see the beginning of that kind of a movement, it isn’t going to change. And one of the big questions is in the ’30s, new forms of working class organization emerged out of the crisis. And I think a critical question in this crisis is: are we going to see new forms of working class organization emerge? Because what exists now can’t just be fixed, either. It isn’t just health care that can’t be fixed. Those things can’t be fixed, either.

JAY: Somewhere, at some point, there’s going to have to be somebody take up the issue of the unemployed. If we’re looking at millions and millions of unemployed—and it seems the numbers are going to go up and up before they go down—but the unions do not seem to be addressing the concerns or trying to speak for those millions of unemployed workers.

GINDIN: No, absolutely, because otherwise you’ve got unemployed who just fade into the landscape, alienated from everybody, no way of expressing their anger or frustration. I mean, you know, there should be meeting. The unions should be creating spaces everywhere for these unemployed to gather, to talk about—just to socialize, to talk about what’s happening to them, so they’re not isolated, and to start talking about doing things, and that doing should be something that the unemployed and the employed jointly do about jobs, ’cause the people who are employed, they’re also going to be unemployed because of the constant restructuring and training that goes on.

JAY: Well, if the unions don’t want to organize the unemployed, maybe Glenn Beck will, and they can be happy with that. Thanks for joining us.

GINDIN: Thank you.

JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.