Some people aren’t happy with how far outside the box Andy Stern is thinking.
In 2005, the maverick head of the union that represents nursing home workers, hospital staff, and janitors nationwide tore the AFL-CIO apart by pulling the Service Employees International Union out of the 50-year-old labor federation and getting other unions to join his “Change to Win” coalition.
Now Stern is working with the corporate chiefs of AT&T, Kelly Services, and Wal-Mart on a campaign to create a national health care system that would cover everyone. While it’s an idea labor generally endorses, leaders of Seattle union locals, particularly the one that’s spent years trying to organize Wal-Mart’s low-paid workers, scoff at Stern for getting in bed with the world’s largest retailer.
In Washington state, the United Food and Commercial Workers and other unions are also pushing a bill aimed at getting Wal-Mart to pay its fair share of skyrocketing health-care costs.
Stern’s “Better Health Care Together” initiative, Seattle labor leaders say, will have no effect on their efforts to pass House Bill 2094, which would make Wal-Mart reimburse the state for taxpayer-funded health services that its employees use because they can’t afford company health coverage.
The campaign that Stern and the company executives announced in early February “doesn’t do anything,” says Robby Stern [no relation to Andy Stern] of the Washington State Labor Council. At the press conference where Andy Stern and the CEOs unveiled the effort, they merely “got up there and said, ‘Why can’t we call get along?’” Robby Stern says. “But when you look at the content [of what they announced], there’s nothing there.”
What Andy Stern and the others announced Feb. 7 on a hotel stage in Washington, D.C., was a mission statement and four goals, which each of the campaign’s supporters — including former Republican Senator Howard Baker and Larry Cohen, president of the Communications Workers of America — agreed to work toward in principle.
Employer-based health coverage is dying, the mission statement declares, due to out-of-control costs, overseas outsourcing of jobs, and the growing number of uninsured. Among the goals identified for solving this, the Better Health Care campaign calls for creating a new American health care system that ensures quality, affordable coverage for every American.
But at the press conference announcing the campaign, says Jackie Ryan, spokesperson with Local 21 of the United Food and Commercial Workers, “[Wal-Mart CEO] Lee Scott also said Wal-Mart is not committed to spending more on health care or making any immediate promises to provide health coverage to more workers.”
“In fact,” she adds, “Wal-Mart is going to continue funding candidates who oppose universal health coverage.”
Better Health Care Together is nothing more than a policy statement, says Robby Stern, that gives no specifics on what kind of universal health plan to work toward, much less how to finance it.
All SEIU and CWA did at the Feb. 7 announcement, he says, was give “legitimacy to a corporation [Wal-Mart] that’s not only doing enormous damage to the workers in this country, but across the world by putting people out of work and helping create sweatshops.”
“To me,” Stern adds, “it made no sense to get on the same stage with them.”
He says unions in this state, including the Service Employees International Union, will continue to work on passing HB 2094. A similar Wal-Mart bill introduced last year in several state houses failed in Washington but passed in Maryland, where a court recently struck it down based on federal retirement law. That bill would have forced only the state’s largest employers — Wal-Mart and just a few others — to contribute 9 percent of their payroll to health coverage.
Conway’s new bill broadens the net to employers of 1,000 or more, a pool Conway estimates at more than 200 companies in Washington. But in order not to run afoul of federal law, HB 2094 takes a new approach, making Wal-Mart and others reimburse the state for employees who use state programs that cover the poor.
Less than half of Wal-Mart’s workers are on the company’s health plan, with state officials reporting that nearly 3,200 Wal-Mart employees use Basic Health or Medicaid at a cost of $9 billion a year to Washington taxpayers.
“Wal-Mart’s employees are paid so badly, they qualify for public assistance,” says Ryan.
“It’s a profit strategy of Wal-Mart’s to keep the working poor poor,” she says. In the meantime, “We’re all paying the price of that company’s irresponsibility.”
By CYDNEY GILLIS, Staff Reporter
For copy of actual issue, go to https://www.realchangenews.org/2007/02/28/feb-28-2007-entire-issue