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Health Care And Labor Rights: Unions’ Congressional Wish List For Democrats

WASHINGTON—Health care, infrastructure, and education top labor’s immediate wish list now that Democrats have won control of the House, along with protecting Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid from assaults euphemistically termed “entitlement reform.” On a deeper level, union leaders also want workers’ rights to organize expanded and American democracy taken back from the increasing tyranny of money.

Culinary workers in Nevada were port of organized labor’s campaign to get out the vote for Democrats.

The Democratic majority in the House means that there’s now “no chance” of a national law to ban the union shop, Transport Workers Union President John Samuelsen tells LaborPress. The TWU’s legislative priorities include action against outsourcing—specifically, airlines sending planes to Latin America and China for maintenance and overhaul—and funding to repair and expand infrastructure, particularly public transportation.

“Just look at the New York City subway system,” Samuelsen says. “We wouldn’t be in this situation if there was constant state-of-good-repair investment.” 

Putting more money into mass transit, he adds, would pay “unbelievable dividends in the U.S. economy.” It would create good-paying jobs, make the U.S. transportation network safer, and be the most effective way to stop global warming. But President Donald Trump’s infrastructure proposals, such as having private developers build toll roads, he says, are just an “extreme for-profit” scheme.

For 1199SEIU, says political director Gabby Seay, the main priorities are protecting the safety net of Social Security and fully funding Medicare and Medicaid; expanding access to health care and making it more affordable; and ensuring that people have good jobs and are able to retire. 

The Democrats will have to “battle Trump to ensure he doesn’t attack working families,” she says. That means stopping efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act or weaken its guarantee that people with pre-existing conditions can get health insurance. The union would also like to see measures to bring down drug prices.

“If [Democrats] don’t begin to learn the lessons from what put Trump in the White House, they’re going to lose again.” — John Samuelsen, president, TWU

UNITE HERE would also like to see legislation to curb price-gouging on drugs. Some pharmaceutical companies have shocked patients by raising prices for essential medications such as insulin by as much as a hundredfold, says spokesperson Rachel Gumpert.

The union also wants to repeal the Affordable Care Act’s tax on “Cadillac plans,” the 40% excise tax on employer-provided health-insurance plans that are costlier because they don’t have high deductibles, stiff copayments, or heavy charges for going to out-of-network providers. UNITE HERE members in New York, San Francisco, and Las Vegas have “excellent health care” because they “have sacrificed for decades” for it, says Gumpert. Health benefits are also one of the most problematic issues in the strike by Marriott hotel workers, she adds.

The “Blue Wave” got a big boost right here.

Other unions are more concerned with restoring workers’ power. “Cleaning up the political process and getting big money out of politics,” says Communications Workers of America legislative director Shane Larson. That idea gets a good response from CWA members who are Trump supporters, he adds. “They just feel alienated from the political system.” 

The CWA is also backing the Freedom to Negotiate Act, introduced in June by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash) and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.). It would outlaw permanent replacement of strikers, end the ban on “secondary boycotts” in which workers support strikes at other employers, prohibit employers from requiring workers to sign away their right to sue, and authorize the National Labor Relations Board to force employers to negotiate with a union their workers have selected.

On a narrower level, it’s also supporting the U.S. Call Center Worker and Consumer Protection Act, introduced last year by Rep. David McKinley (D-W. Va) and Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.). It would require companies to let people talk to a U.S.-based representative, and prohibit those that move call centers overseas from receiving federal grants or guaranteed loans for five years.

Trump, Larson says, has not responded to a letter sent by several senators telling him he could do this by executive order, nor to a similar message personally delivered by CWA President Chris Shelton.

For American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, “accountability” is paramount. Donald Trump thinks he’s above the law, she says, and the Senate will not restrain him, so “the House will have to.” Other priorities include protecting the Affordable Care Act from Republican “sabotage”; lowering the price of prescription drugs; building and repairing water-supply infrastructure, roads, and bridges; and increasing funding for schools, especially special education. Last spring’s “Red for Ed” strikes by teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and other states, she says, were “teachers walking out for their kids, to get the resources their kids need.”

Weingarten says the House will likely pass some “what we stand for” bills that have no hope of getting through the Senate, but will also have to find some measures Senate Republicans would support if they want to get anything actually passed in the coming session. 

“I’m trying to be realistic about what one branch can do in a divided government,” she says.

One bipartisan possibility would be fixing the public-service loan-forgiveness program, which cancels remaining student debt owed by people who have worked 10 years in professions such as teacher or firefighter. Of 28,000 people who’ve applied to the Department of Education for it, she says, only 96 have been approved.

But the Workplace Democracy Act, a measure introduced in May by Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) and Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) that would legalize secondary boycotts and repeal the section of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 that authorizes states to prohibit the union shop, would likely be a one-house bill, she says.

While many unions support turning health care into a single-payer system such as Medicare, the House passing legislation to do that would likely be another one-house bill. For 1199, says Seay, “it’s the North Star, the ideal”—but it’s not going to happen in this Congress.

“It’s clear that the public is with us on that,” says Larson, but he thinks the most the House can do would be holding hearings on it, or on lesser measures like letting people under 65 buy into Medicare. 

Democrats, however, need to show working people which side they’re on, avers Samuelsen: They need to “embrace a class-oriented agenda” and “reinvigorate a discussion about how to advance the trade-union movement in America.”

One reason wages are stagnant, he says, is that with the Democratic establishment liberal on social issues but corporate on economics, we have “one party wanting to kill us and one party ignoring us.” That leaves a gap that Trump was able to exploit with working-class voters in Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.

“If they don’t begin to learn the lessons from what put Trump in the White House,” he contends, “they’re going to lose again.”

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