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The Looming Commercial Cleaners Strike and Why Working People Need Medicare For All

“Every time we go to the bargaining table on behalf of our members, [healthcare] is the central issue we have that may lead to strikes in our industry.” — Larry Engelstein, 32BJ SEIU Secretary-Treasurer and Health Fund Trustee.

Reporter’s Notebook

New York, NY – Healthcare is such a core, fundamental issue for working men and women that in the next two weeks, more than 20,000 commercial cleaners throughout the city could walk off the job and strike to protect what they have — which begs the question: Why isn’t organized labor demanding a plan that finally takes healthcare off the bargaining table, covers everyone and eliminates skyrocketing premiums, deductibles and co-pays?

Last week, ahead of a New York City Council Joint Health & Hospitals Oversight Committee hearing on exploding healthcare costs, 32BJ Secretary-Treasurer and Health Fund Trustee Larry Engelstein conceded, “Every time we go to the bargaining table on behalf of our members, [healthcare] is the central issue we have that may lead to strikes in our industry.” 

The same can be send for virtually every other union out there. Even when union leaders succeed in bringing home a contract that provides for something even remotely resembling “decent healthcare,” workers are never safe from employers determined to undermine and roll back those gains at every opportunity. 

The constant struggle sucks the oxygen out of fights that could be devoted to improved pay packages and pension plans — or as veteran 32BJ member Luchiana Owens said outside City Hall last week, “Our insurance is funded by our employer — contributions we won at our bargaining table; when healthcare costs are out of control, there is less room for wage increases, our pension payments and training and other benefits that members rely upon to support their families and improve their lives.”

Negotiations between 32BJ and the Realty Board Association [RAB] kicked off on November 14. Still without a deal — the union now plans to put thousands of commercial cleaners into the streets on Wednesday, December 18, to demand an agreement before the current contract expires at year’s end. 

“The employers are proposing that we share in the premium cost and that is a strike issue for us,” Engelstein said last week. “We’re hoping that they take it off the table by the time we settle — but we don’t know where this is going — and it’s a major issue. But what’s driving that pressure is the high and increasingly rising costs, which are putting pressure on everybody. The taxpayers are funding DC37’s healthcare costs and we’re having to bargain with our employers and the landlords to get the money to pay for the healthcare — and that comes out of the wage package.”

Assembly Member Richard Gottfried and State Senator Gustavo Rivera’s New York State Health Act [A.5248/S.3577] passed the Assembly four years running with a two-thirds margin and enjoys  31 co-sponsors in the Senate — just one vote short of a majority. While eliminating all those exploding premiums, deductibles and copays, the measure is also universal and comprehensive — covering primary and preventive care, specialist care, prescription drugs, mental health, substance abuse treatments, reproductive health, physical rehabilitation, dental, vision, hearing and long term care.

Advocates put the net savings for New York State at $11 billion. 

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders is advocating similar Medicare For All legislation at the national level. 

Council Member Mark Levine [D-7th District], chair of the Committee on Health, said last week, that hospitals are exploiting the current private healthcare system with “surprise billing, often because of out-of-network fees.”

“Who pays the price for that? In big part, organized labor, which is giving up money that could go to wages because it has to fund higher and higher healthcare costs,” Levine told LaborPress. 

Engelstein also expressed support for a better way to do healthcare. 

“Obviously, we need to get to a system where there is transparency, where there is rationality, where there is appropriate cost containment without affecting clinical outcomes,” he said. “And where people are not spending such a huge percentage of the nation’s income on healthcare in a way that does not produce better outcomes like Western Europe, for example.”

According Campaign for New York Health survey conducted between 2017 and 2019, half of all respondents with private health insurance reported skipping or delaying at least one type of care because of high costs. Three out of four (72%) of these respondents also skipped or delayed multiple types of care.

Still, many labor leaders, including Engelstein, stop short of advocating for Medicare For All. 

“We think that there should be affordable, accessible healthcare for all Americans and, obviously, the details of that process are being discussed both in New York and at the federal level,” Engelstein added. “But in any healthcare system, you have to have a rational way of dealing with costs and right now, in our healthcare system, there are disparities, there’s a lack of transparency that is generating enormous pressures on everybody to continue to have a living wage and to maintain their healthcare. That’s our fight today, that’s what we need to do.”

The union representing thousands of New York City’s hardworking and hard-pressed commercial cleaners may succeed in averting a strike over healthcare this year — but even if they do, private healthcare industry costs will continue to hurt not only them, but working men and women everywhere in more ways than one.

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