Lessons of 1989 NYNEX strike for today’s health care debates

NEW YORK - SEPTEMBER 22:  Paloma McGregor, who...
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Steve Early and Rand Wilson give us a valuable history lesson with lots of lessons for today in a Nation article marking the 1989 strike of 60,000 workers against NYNEX, the forerunner of Veriz0n. Early and Wilson were both involved in NYNEX strike support work in New England in 1989.

NYNEX was a very profitable, multinational company seeking to capitalize on a demoralizing decade of lost strikes, contract givebacks and widespread unionbusting. At a time when many workers were forced to make concessions, NYNEX strikers held the line for four months and emerged victorious. They successfully resisted the company’s demand that they pay hundreds and eventually thousands of dollars a year for medical benefits. But this singular union win didn’t come cheap. Customer service was disrupted by the work stoppage, resulting in tens of millions of dollars worth of lost wages. Hundreds of strikers were arrested, fired or suspended–and one, Gerry Horgan, was killed on a picket line in Westchester County.

In every other advanced industrial nation, the contentious issue of who pays for medical care was taken off the bargaining table long ago. And no worker would ever lose his or her life defending job-based private health insurance.

Early and Wilson point out that this is directly relevant to the Baucus proposal to tax ‘cadillac’ medical benefits:

As health policy expert Len Rodberg noted in a recent article, “Is There Any Way Out for Obama?,” funding “healthcare reform” in this fashion simply penalizes employers like Verizon who have, under duress, continued to provide “good insurance.” At the same time, the Finance Committee bill approved on October 13 does little to compel better coverage by employers who currently underinsure their employees. In the case of big self-insured firms in the telecom industry, this is not a “tax on insurance companies”–as often reported misleadingly in the media. It’s an additional bottom-line cost that, as Rodberg observes, provides “a strong incentive to cut back on benefits.” Workers who lack collective bargaining rights will have their coverage reduced unilaterally. At unionized firms like Verizon or AT&T–where healthcare has bogged down union bargaining again this year–an excise tax on existing benefits will trigger more 1989-style labor-management conflict at a time when union strike capacity is far weaker than twenty years ago.

A recent email from the CWA has this to say about how to pay for health care:

The Senate Finance Committee version of health care reform includes a tax on health care plans that would hit working and middle class families hard and does nothing to make companies that are now health care “freeloaders” pay their fair share.

“It’s absurd to make those employers who already provide health care coverage pay even more. Instead, employers that don’t cover their workers need to pay,” said CWA President Larry Cohen. The excise tax will lead to even more cost-shifting to workers, he added.

A new Washington Post/ABC poll finds that 61 percent of Americans oppose the tax on health care plans and “shows what we have known all along: The public does not support a middle class tax to fund health care reform when there are plenty of other progressive alternatives” including an 8 percent payroll tax levied on employers that don’t provide health care coverage to workers and a rollback of some tax breaks given to the wealthiest Americans during the Bush administration.

Read CWA’s analysis of the excise tax and its devastating effects on CWAers and working families.

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