By Eric Boehm | Watchdog.org
President Obama plans to meet face-to-face with labor leaders Friday to try and quell their opposition to Obamacare, as Republicans warn that the administration might offer a sweetheart deal to give their workers extra health care subsidies.
But while labor leaders hear out the White House, state-level union bosses are on their way back from the national conference of the AFL-CIO, and they’ve got a message for state lawmakers and Congress:
“We want changes to Obamacare.”
At this week’s national conference of the AFL-CIO, an umbrella group for dozens of labor unions, union leaders approved a resolution formally calling for changes to the Affordable Care Act. The AFL-CIO said it’s concerned about the affordability and accessibility of health insurance under Obamacare, and also worries that workers’ hours may be cut back as an unintended consequence of the law.
In short, the AFL-CIO shares many of the same concerns opponents of the health care law have been raising for a long time.
But the AFL-CIO is not a group of tea party Republicans determined to defund the law. The group was among the biggest advocates for the ACA when it passed Congress in March 2010.
Things haven’t gone according to plan since then.
“I haven’t heard from anyone who thinks this is moving smoothly,” said Jon Hendry, president of the New Mexico Federation of Labor/AFL-CIO. “We support the ACA but it has to be fixed.”
Hendry was on his way back to the Land of Enchantment on Thursday, when he told Watchdog.org he supported the resolution approved in Los Angeles and wants to see changes to the health care law.
Part of that fix, Hendry said, could include a radical move toward a single-payer health care system. That’s what the AFL-CIO has favored all along, he said.
Through it all, unions continue to say they support the goal behind Obamacare: to provide insurance for millions of working class Americans who do not receive employer-based health insurance and are too poor (or just unwilling) to purchase health insurance on their own.
But like anything else, the devil is in the details.
On the whole, unions’ biggest complaint with the ACA is that the federal government would recognize so-called “multi-employer plans” as employer-based health plans. Those types of plans were legalized by the Taft-Hartley Act and are widely used by labor unions as a way to pool insurance costs between unions and management.
Since the Treasury Department says it will view multi-employer plans the same way as other employer-based health coverage, so individuals enrolled in those plans will not be eligible for government subsidies.
“Federal agencies administering the ACA have interpreted the Act in ways that are threatening the ability of workers to keep health care coverage through some collectively bargained, non-profit health care funds,” the AFL-CIO resolution reads, in part.
Unions argue the multi-employer plans operate as nonprofits, and therefore shouldn’t be treated the same way as other employer-based coverage options, which are usually for-profit. Some other not-for-profit insurance plans will be eligible for those subsidies.
“Labor is not against Obamacare. That is absolutely not true,” said Wendell Young IV, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1776, based in Philadelphia. “We think that in the sausage-grinder that is Washington, some mistakes were made and those should be corrected.”
Young, who was part of the UFCW’s national board that also issued a resolution calling for changes to Obamacare, noted that the administration made special concessions for the Catholic Church and delayed implementation of the employer mandate after opposition by business groups.
Unions want the same kind of flexibility from the administration, he said.
But unions are also coming to terms with the perverse incentives in the ACA that are leading employers to cut employees’ hours.
Some state-level chapters of the AFL-CIO had already approved resolutions criticizing Obamacare before the national convention this week.
The Nevada AFL-CIO approved one such measure last month, which it said outlined “the unintended consequences of the ACA, including threatening the 40 hour work week, higher taxes on less coverage, and the potential disappearance of Taft-Hartley plans, which have been the bedrock of labor-management relations since 1947.”
“We simply want to keep the health plans we currently have — nothing more or less,” said Geoconda Arguello-Kline, secretary-treasurer of Local 226, a Las Vegas-based union.
The opposition from the AFL-CIO follows a letter from three major national unions — Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers and UNITE HERE — to the Democratic leaders of Congress.
In July, the heads of those unions told Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., that Obamacare would “destroy the very health and well-being of our members along with millions of other hardworking Americans.”
United Union of Roofers, Waterproofers and Allied Workers was the first major union to openly turn against the federal health care law. In April, the 22,000-member union called for it to be repealed, citing concerns that members may lose existing health insurance plans.
“Our concerns over certain provisions in the ACA have not been addressed, or in some instances, totally ignored,” wrote Kinsey M. Robinson, the union’s president. “In the rush to achieve its passage, many of the Act’s provisions were not fully conceived, resulting in unintended consequences that are inconsistent with the promise that those who were satisfied with their employer sponsored coverage could keep it.”
In May, major unions in Chicago revolted against a plan by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a former Obama adviser, who announced his intention to cut health care services for public-sector employees and dump them into Obamacare exchanges.
A few Republicans in Congress have already sought to exploit the growing discontent between the White House and its labor union allies.
Last month, U.S. Sen. Orin Hatch, R-Utah, wrote to the heads of several national unions to encourage them to join the GOP-led effort to implement “a permanent delay” in the implementation of the law, according to the Wall Street Journal.
But conservatives, Republicans and others who want to see Obamacare defunded or repealed are not likely to find an ally in the AFL-CIO. The union’s resolution said the group is committed to government-funded health care and will continue to push for a single-payer system.
Calling for votes to kill the AVA is not helping, Hendry said.
“We’ve got to figure it out, to implement this thing. We’ve got to live with what we’ve got,” he said.
Unions might be learning they’ll have to live with something they don’t really like.
Boehm is a reporter for Watchdog.org and can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @EricBoehm87
Rob Nikolewski contributed to this report.