Labor unions have been in the news a lot lately, but unfortunately the coverage hasn’t been about how collective action improves wages, benefits and working conditions. Instead, the media has focused on how some union leaders are opposing “Medicare for All” because they fear losing employer-sponsored health insurance that they’ve fought for through collective bargaining. As union members, it’s been extremely disappointing to hear presidential candidates using us as a weapon against a policy that would dramatically improve the lives of all working people. That’s why we were very pleased to read Greg Kesich’s recent column pointing out that union opposition to Medicare for All is shortsighted.

However, Kesich did not mention that the Maine AFL-CIO, which represents 160 union locals with 40,000 members, has endorsed Medicare for All and union members are leading a movement to make it happen! In the past year, our health care committee, which is made up of rank-and-file union members of various occupations, has been holding listening sessions at union meetings throughout the state. The message we’re hearing from members is clear: the current health care system is a disaster.

Nurses, millworkers, postal workers, shipbuilders, electricians, public employees and others have told us horror stories about fighting to get medical treatments covered, struggling to pay out-of-pocket costs and not being able to retire because they would lose health care coverage for their families. Even workers with insurance are finding it difficult to pay for health care. A new Harvard University study found that while more people have insurance coverage than in the 1990s, the share of adults who were unable to afford to see a doctor rose by nearly a third between 1998 and 2017. Among adults with health insurance, there was a 60 percent increase in inability to afford to see a doctor because of narrow provider networks, high-deductible plans and higher co-pays.

Even those of us with better-than-average health insurance still have to constantly fight to keep it. In contract negotiations, union leaders are spending more and more of their time fighting just to retain our current level of health benefits, while wages, working conditions and other benefits take a back seat. Union workers are the lucky ones, but even our insurance has been getting whittled away over the years by a highly inefficient health care system that prioritizes profits for insurance company shareholders, hospital executives and drug company CEOs over working people.

If we had a national health care plan like Medicare for All, we could take health care off the bargaining table and focus on bargaining for higher wages, better retirement, child care, workplace safety or more vacation time. We would also have more leverage in negotiations because our members would be less hesitant to strike for fear of losing their health care coverage. If health care weren’t tied to employment, we could have the freedom to change careers, start a business or take early retirement. We don’t require workers to negotiate their children’s education with their employers, so why should it be that way for life-saving health care?

It’s time to stop subsidizing the health insurance industry and provide high-quality, comprehensive health care to everyone. Medicare for All plans being considered in Congress would eliminate out-of-pocket costs and cover hospital visits, primary care, vision, dental, hearing and even long-term care services for a fraction of the cost that we’re paying now. We believe that health care is a human right, and it’s time to replace our broken system with one that prioritizes patients over profit.

The labor movement has a long history of fighting to improve the lives of all working-class people, whether it was organizing for fair wages and the eight-hour day or pushing for Social Security, workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance and civil rights. One hundred years ago this June, the Maine State Federation of Labor passed a resolution calling for “universal health insurance which will bring sickness protection to all workers.”

Health care justice is the fight of our time, and it’s time to get the job done!


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