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An Appeal To Labor: Time For Solidarity On Reform

Capping the tax exclusion for group health insurance remains one of the best options for financing universal coverage--and, along the way, introducing new incentives that might help curb medical spending over the long run. But because such a change would inevitably affect some better-paid unionized workers with generous benfits, organized labor has staunchly opposed such proposals. 

Many liberals (myself included) have urged the unions to reconsider that position, particularly since the inability to raise enough money for reform is now imperling its success. But few of us have made the case as eloquently--or as persuasively--as J. Lester Feder did recently for Slate's The Big Money.

Feder is a freelance journalist who has been writing smart pieces on health care for a while. You may have read his work in the Nation, Columbia Journalism Review, or here at TNR.

But what makes this piece particularly compelling is Feder's background. Before Feder was a professional journalist, he was a union member and steward:

Obama and many other senior Democrats are steadfastly opposing even a partial rollback of the tax break because it is treasured by the unions, whose members are 50 percent more likely to get benefits than workers in non-union shops. And the unions' hard-line position, it pains me to say, contradicts what I learned about solidarity while a steward of the United Auto Workers....

Unions fought hard for health benefits, and they fear employers will stop offering benefits if this tax advantage is taken away. And they're right: Wholesale removal of the employer exclusion without other reforms could cause the complete collapse of the employer insurance system. But only a partial rollback of the exclusion is under consideration as a part of comprehensive health reform. It is hard to argue against taxing a portion of the benefits of higher earners in order to make the tax code fairer and expand coverage for the uninsured. Yes, some unionized workers with benefits would see their taxes go up, but I was taught that we organize to make life better for all workers, not just those in our bargaining units....

Unions' fears are not unreasonable, but they are compromising what's best for all workers in order to protect unionized workers. And I'd like to believe that Walter Reuther, the legendary head of the United Auto Workers, would endorse this modest change in order to achieve universal coverage. When most unions had abandoned the fight for health reform in the 1960s because they had already won employer benefits for their members, Reuther launched his own effort to revive national health legislation. Announcing this campaign in 1969, he declared, "The call to greatness must be commensurate with the amount of change that is needed."

The amount of change it will take to cover the 50 million uninsured and help Americans with insurance keep up with skyrocketing costs is huge--but more possible now than ever. Now is the time to be great.

The whole article is worth reading--and circulating to anybody you know in the labor movement.