Real opportunities to nationalize health insurance in the United States only come around once in a while. The last time was in 1993, when a plan by then-first lady Hillary Clinton was trashed by corporate opposition.
Now is the best chance since then. Most Americans agree that the system doesn't work; our industries are crippled with ever-increasing health costs; and, with a presidential campaign looming over the political landscape, activists need to seize the moment.
That's why the United Auto Workers union should use its national contract negotiations to get General Motors, Ford and Chrysler to join the fight in earnest.
About four years ago UAW President Ron Gettelfinger called a press conference at the union's Detroit headquarters to talk about our health care crisis: Costs were spiraling out of control, 45 million Americans were uninsured. Gettelfinger proposed a national single-payer health insurance program as the solution.
"Nobody's talking about that," said a reporter from one of the daily papers. Actually, a lot of people were talking about it back then. The mainstream press just wasn't paying much attention to them.
Today, even a head-in-the-sand corporate reporter couldn't help but notice the conversation on health care reform from the nearly two-thirds of Americans who support the idea of a national single-payer plan to Congress where Rep. John Conyers is getting attention for the National Health Insurance Act, H.R. 676, which he introduced in 2003.
Health care is the top domestic issue in the United States, and the No. 1 issue in the 2007 national contract negotiations between the UAW and GM. In fact, health care costs have been the most contentious issue at the bargaining table for most contract negotiations in recent years. Unfortunately it's usually an attempt by the Big Three to dump their costs onto workers.
"I believe the 2007 negotiations should be about national health care," says Frank Hammer. "As a GM retiree, whatever comes out of these negotiations will definitely affect my household."
Hammer retired in January after 32 years, the last six as an international representative servicing GM workers. He was on the union's national negotiating team that kept their fully paid health insurance agreement with GM intact in 2003. Then, in 2005, he saw GM (and Ford) renegotiate provisions for payment of health insurance costs.
And it looks like the company wants to garner more health care savings as part of this year's agenda.
Regardless of how it plays out, negotiations should include a company commitment to actively pursue a national health insurance policy. Of course, that would mean the GM directors would have to turn in their cards for the We Hate Socialism club.
"How much further the auto companies' support will take us isn't clear," says Hal Stack, director of Wayne State University's Labor Studies Center. "How much capital do you use up in this bargaining situation to get a promise from the Big Three that they support single-payer fundamental health care, knowing that it's not particularly decisive in health care reform?"
GM's support may not prove decisive, but when you look at the company's economic self-interest, it should be a no-brainer decision. It's estimated that health care costs add from $1,000 to $2,000 to the cost of a Big Three vehicle. That's a disadvantage compared to operations in almost every other country they operate in. If American companies want to have a prayer against competitors worldwide, a national health insurance system makes sense.
Like other manufacturers, automakers and suppliers have been reeling financially. Numerous parts suppliers, such as Delphi, Dana and Collins & Aikman, have declared bankruptcy in the past few years. Chrysler just got dumped by its German owners, and fearful predictions of a possible GM or Ford bankruptcy have circulated. The fact that the UAW negotiated new health care provisions between national contracts two years ago shows how badly the auto companies are ailing. Although turnaround strategies (mostly cost-cutting) have reduced the billions GM and Ford have been losing each year, their U.S. divisions are not breaking even.
National health insurance may be their last and only chance.
Hammer points out that GM has already agreed to that in principle. In 2005, when health care costs were renegotiated with the UAW members, GM said it would engage in "an unprecedented effort to enact policies to improve the quality of health care and to make it more affordable, accessible and accountable on a comprehensive, national basis."
Colt Manufacturing (the firearms company) recently endorsed Connecticut's Healthcare4every1 campaign as part of a UAW contract agreement. Bankrupt auto supplier Dana Corp. is pushing nationalized health care as part of its negotiations with the union. Even nonunion employers such as Kelly Services advocate for a national insurance plan.
"There is much more focus on this issue from a corporate perspective than there has been in the past," says Stack. "I'm a bit more encouraged because a lot of CEOs from a lot of industries have gotten on board."
The alternative is an ever-increasing dumping of ever-increasing health care costs onto workers' backs, and more offshoring of jobs to cheap labor markets. That includes just across the river in Canada where Windsor has enough auto plants to usurp Detroit's label as the Motor City. In 2003 GM Canada CEO Michael Grimaldi cosigned a letter with Canadian Auto Workers President Buzz Hargrove to that country's Crown Commission that was considering changes to Canada's 35-year-old national health program.
It said, "The public health care system significantly reduces total labour costs for automobile manufacturing firms, compared to their cost of equivalent private insurance services purchased by U.S.-based automakers." CEOs of Ford and DaimlerChrysler Canadian units wrote similar letters.
The UAW declined to comment on this year's negotiation strategy other than to point out media guide information which says: "The UAW has long advocated for a universal, single-payer insurance program to cover every man, woman and child in the United States."
That's boilerplate language that was in place when I worked as an editor and writer in the UAW Public Relations department from 2002 to 2006.
Health care costs are the leading cause of personal bankruptcies in the United States, according to a 2005 Harvard Medical School study. And corporations increasingly cite those costs in their own bankruptcy filings. National health insurance would benefit every U.S. resident and give our economy a boost. Plus it's just the right thing to do.
"There are many words spoken about the UAW being a social movement that benefits everyone, and we've strayed from that. Fighting not only for our membership but as a part of a national movement would buoy perceptions of the UAW," says Hammer.
To get GM to redirect its efforts from dumping costs on workers to changing the system would indeed be good for GM and good for America.Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and former editor of the Metro Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org