A rainbow of colorful T-shirts filled the seats at Tuesday’s AFL-CIO workers summit in Philadelphia. Communications workers wore red, roofers donned black, electricians clustered blue, and ironworkers sported green, as union members from across the region gathered to hear what Democratic presidential hopefuls had to say to organized labor.
More than 100 labor unions, representing more than 200,000 workers in the area, comprise the Philadelphia AFL-CIO, and their focus was on former Vice President Joe Biden and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, both of whom have histories backing organized labor.
Sanders has campaigned largely on his signature health care plan, Medicare for All, which would create universal, publicly funded health insurance similar to the current Medicare plan for Americans 65 and older. Biden and other moderate Democratic presidential candidates have invoked unions along the campaign trail to criticize the idea, which would essentially eliminate private insurance. Biden says scrapping employee-based insurance would cause union members to lose the high-quality health benefits they bargained for over the years.
“I have a significant health plan, but guess what? In mine, you can keep your health insurance you bargained for, if you like it,” Biden told Tuesday’s crowd. “You’ve broken your neck to get it, you’ve given up wages to get it, you should be entitled to keep it, and no plan should take it away from you if that’s what you decide.”
Some in the crowd appreciated that support.
“We fought long and hard over the years, and we’ve sacrificed and put aside pay raises and stuff like that in order to keep the health care coverage that we’ve had,” said Tom Romantini, who works at Verizon and is a rep for the Communication Workers of America. “It’s fine if everybody else gets it, we just don’t want it to ride on our backs.”
But not all union members agreed that Medicare for All would work against them — especially those who work in health care.
The Pennsylvania Association of Staff Nurses and Allied Professionals represents more than 8,000 nurses across the state. Former PASNAP president and retired registered nurse Patty Eakin said she welcomed the opportunity to spend less time negotiating with management over health care, freeing up bargaining power for other issues.
“If we didn’t have to deal with that problem, we could spend more time at the table fighting for more important things, like safe patient care,” Eakin said.
Mike Trunk, a worker with Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers Local 1, said that the plan sounded good, but that his biggest concern would be the quality of care in a Medicare for All system.
“If we go universal, are we getting good health care? Or are we just gonna get universal crap,” Trunk asked.
Senator Sanders’ bill would allow people to get private health insurance for care not covered under Medicare for All.
But Sanders didn’t spend much of his time Tuesday highlighting aspects of his proposed legislation that would assuage union arguments against Medicare for All. Instead, he told a story of traveling to Canada, where insulin is 10 times cheaper for diabetics than it is in the United States, and he bashed Oxycontin producer Purdue Pharma for marketing addictive painkillers to consumers and doctors.
To be sure, Sanders has responses to those arguments. Last month, he released a plan to strengthen unions while campaigning in Iowa, part of which focused on Medicare for All. In the plan, Sanders promises that any savings employers gain by switching away from employer-provided care to Medicare for All would be distributed back to union members in the form of increased wages. According to the plan, that process would be overseen by the National Labor Relations Board.
At last week’s Democratic presidential debate in Houston, Biden was dubious about Sanders’ assumption that such a plan would work.
“You negotiated as a union all these years, got a cut in wages because you got insurance. They’re going to give back that money to the employee?” Biden asked.
“As a matter of fact, they will in our bill,” Sanders responded.
“Well, let me tell you something,” Biden retorted, “for a socialist, you’ve got a lot more confidence in corporate America than I do.”
Nationally, many unions, which represent one-tenth of the American labor force, have yet to endorse a candidate or a health care plan. The International Association of Fire Fighters, which represents more than 300,000 firefighters and paramedics in the United States and Canada, came out against a government-run single-payer plan in July. The 1.7 million-member American Federation of Teachers endorsed universal healthcare last year.
Ultimately, union members opposing Medicare for All at Tuesday’s summit in Philadelphia expressed a sense of solidarity, and the need to protect what they had collectively earned.
“We got like the A-1 health care,” said Terrell Jenkins, who works in maintenance for the Philadelphia Housing Authority. “If it’s gonna hurt the union, I’m against it.”
But many in favor of Medicare for All seemed to support it not out of consideration of what would be good for their unions, but because they believed it was the right thing to do.
Andre Bailey, a member of Ironworkers Union Local 401, said he has great health insurance but would be happy to give it up for a public plan.
“I think everybody should have health care — you hate to see people get turned away,” he said.
His father was denied coverage for the dye used to detect his cancer, Bailey said. “If everybody has health insurance, it’d make it a better world.”