The Debate within Unions over Health Care is about the Nature of Unionism Itself

The Debate within Unions over Health Care is about the Nature of Unionism Itself

Casual observers of the political scene got an insight into union politics when a small storm erupted over a flyer distributed by Nevada’s Culinary Union attacking Bernie Sanders and his Medicare for All proposal.

Politico has a piece surveying similar disputes in other states and nationwide.  Some unions, like the building trades and the Teamsters, want to keep the insurance plans they’ve negotiated for their members; most others want universal public insurance.

Aside from the specifics of each individual bargaining agreement and its health care provisions, this issue reveals the fundamental difference between two forms of unionism.

Business unionism is based on the idea that union members, drawing on their own resources, can create the best conditions for their work.  From this point of view, the greater the difference between how well off union members are compared to the nonunion workers around them, the more attractive the union will be, the more members it will have, and the more benefits they can win at the bargaining table.

Social unionism also wants to promote the interests of its members, but it believes that what can be achieved society-wide, through coalition-building and political action, is far greater than what any single union can achieve on its own.  Instead of increasing the gap between union and nonunion workers, social unionists want everyone to move up together as far as possible.

Labor officials attached to business unionism hate Medicare for All: it will put all workers on the same footing whether they belong to a union or not.  In their view, this takes away one of the reasons workers might join in the first place.  They think their bargaining power will continue to assure them the health benefits they currently have without any tradeoffs on wages or other elements of their compensation.

The social union perspective is exactly the opposite.  It welcomes Medicare for All, believing the collective action of workers in all occupations, union and nonunion, can win better and more durable benefits than the efforts of a few.  From their point of view, making these alliances and promoting a politics of inclusion is exactly what unions should be about.

It’s a perfect litmus test.