By Bruce Vail
The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) added its voice last week to the growing number of labor unions with complaints about how President Barack Obama is handling implementation of the Affordable Care Act of 2010 (ACA), better known as Obamacare.
The 725,000-member IBEW released a white paper on July 11 calling for changes to how the law treats multi-employer plans (also known as Taft-Hartley plans). These plans, which are jointly administered by unions and their employers, are endangered by the ACA because it will discourage employers from participating in the plans, and place some existing union employers at a financial disadvantage. The health insurance of more than 350,000 IBEW members covered by such plans is at risk, says IBEW spokesperson Jim Spellane.
IBEW’s concerns echo those voiced on May 20 by Joseph Hansen, president of the 1.3-million member United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) union and the first major labor leader to publicly criticize the ACA implementation. In an op-ed published in The Hill, Hansen also called for changes to the law, either through an administrative ruling or through new legislation to amend ACA. Among other things, Hansen wants the rules adjusted so that low-income workers can receive the same government subsidy for buying insurance through a union plan than for buying insurance through the new insurance exchanges.
The law “creates unstoppable incentives for employers to reduce weekly hours for workers currently on our plans and push them onto the exchanges where many will pay higher costs for poorer insurance with a more limited network of providers. In other words, they will be forced to change their coverage and quite possibly their doctors. Others will be channeled into Medicaid, where taxpayers must pick up the tab,” Hansen wrote.
Neither the UFCW nor the IBEW have been attacking the ACA directly, or calling for repeal. One union official tells Working In These Times that a number of unions have been working quietly with government officials to address problems, but have only recently become so frustrated at the slow progress that they decided to go public. By choosing venues like The Hill to voice complaints, unions hope to pressure legislators to involve themselves more actively on behalf of union members, he says. Other unions—particularly the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and UNITE HERE—are expected to join in soon, he says.
While there are some important similarities between the complaints raised by the two union leaders, there are also major differences, IBEW’s Spellane tells Working In These Times. One particular concern of IBEW is the provision of the ACA that exempts employers with less than 50 workers from any requirement to provide health care coverage at all. That exemption will cover almost all of the building construction industry, where most IBEW members earn their living, he says.
“By not requiring construction employers to offer health care coverage to their employees, the ACA begins a race to the bottom with respect to benefits. Employers contributing to multiemployer health plans will be forced to choose whether to provide health care benefits for their employees or remain competitive,” according to the IBEW white paper.
Such a change will likely require legislation, rather than bureaucratic rule-making, Spellane concedes. “We supported the ACA back in 2009-2010 with full knowledge that it wasn’t perfect and would need tweaking. Now that the deadlines are fast approaching, it is time to make those changes that will allow multiemployer plans to continue to operate,” to provide good health coverage to union workers, he says.
IBEW cited efforts by a Washington, D.C.-based coalition of unions and employer groups that has been frustrated in attempts to clarify new Obamacare rules as they apply to multiemployer plans. The National Coordinating Committee for Multiemployer Plans (NCCMP) has been working on technical issues associated with ACA since it was enacted in 2010.
Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau. He writes frequently for the Working In These Times blog where this post first appeared.