A half-dozen union leaders banded together Friday to support Medicare for All, looking to spackle over the contentious issue between organized labor and left-wing Democratic presidential candidates Sens. Bernard Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
In a conference call with reporters, the heads of five unions or chapters said they and their members believe a government-run system would help their members, as it would allow the unions to concentrate on wages, pensions and other benefits — instead of health care — during contract negotiations.
“It’s crucial we take health care off the bargaining table so our members can fight for more and focus on improving our overall lives,” said Anand Singh, president of Unite Here Local 2, which represents about 14,000 hospitality industry workers in the San Francisco Bay area and has endorsed Mr. Sanders.
“Any pay increases come with increased costs for health care coverage,” said Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants. “Now we have to fight like hell to hang on to what we already negotiated a long time ago.”
The call came after the Culinary Workers Union in Las Vegas, the largest local Unite Here chapter, engaged in a well-publicized spat with Mr. Sanders before the Nevada caucus. Mr. Sanders, a longtime socialist, has made the abolition of private insurance and the creation of a government-run health care system a cornerstone of his surging presidential bid. That goal clashes with the Cadillac health care plan the union had negotiated for its members.
Mr. Sanders easily won the Nevada caucus, without support from the culinary union, which represents thousands of hospitality industry employees in Las Vegas.
Nineteen major unions representing a majority of union membership in the U.S. support Mr. Sanders’ Medicare for All legislation pending in Congress, said Mark Dudzic, the national coordinator for Labor Campaign for Single Payer, who led the conference call.
But the abolition of private insurance remains a sore spot between Medicare for All supporters and unions that have successfully fought for better health insurance. The goal of Friday’s call was to show that most unions would prefer single-payer plans such as those touted by Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren of Massachusetts.
Federal workers, for example, have a smorgasboard of health insurance options widely considered superior to those available to most private-sector workers, but the cost of those options has risen, said Mark Dimondstein, head of the American Postal Workers Union.
“The only ones who will not be better off [with single payer] are the health care industry and the pharmaceutical companies who already fleece the 99 percent of us and the working people every day,” he said.
Postal workers pay $6,000 a year, not including copays and deductibles, for coverage of a family of four, Mr. Dimondstein said, noting that health care costs consume between 15 and 20% of postal workers’ take-home pay.
Mr. Sanders has said his plan would cost about $30 trillion over 10 years and would lower health care costs, but his numbers have been challenged by rival candidates, who also argue that Americans don’t want to be lose health care plans they like.
While the cost of Medicare for All was not discussed on the call, the union leaders agree that most Americans would save money if the federal government covered all costs.
They also argue that much of what is negotiated for union workers’ benefits winds up being paid in health insurance premiums. Mr. Singh cited a recent strike his local chapter had with Marriott hotels, in which “our biggest win was maintaining full health care.”
“It makes no sense to beat up on one company — in this case, Marriott — only to turn around and hand nearly half of our spoils to another corporate complex: health care,” he said.
The removal of superior health insurance plans would not make workers less inclined to join a union, Ms. Nelson of the flight attendants union argued. Her union has not endorsed a candidate.
“That’s a for-profit health care talking point,” she said. “There will always be issues people workers want to join together on.”
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