A Union Rebound

Women lead the way in the name of health

Volume CVIII, No. 3March, 2008

Joel LeFevre

The percentage of the American workforce in unions increased for the first time in 25 years in 2007 to 12.2 percent of the labor force, according to the Center for Economic Policy reporting on the latest stats from the Department of Labor.

This measure of union market share or union density has been in decline since 1979.

This development is especially notable as the decline in the number of U.S. manufacturing jobs — where the percentage of unionization has always been high — continued to decline in 2007 as manufacturing continued to move offshore.

We note this development in light of March being Women’s History Month.

Out of the nearly 310,000 new union members in 2007, over two-thirds of them are women.

At the top of the increasing numbers across the economy is the increase of some 200,000 workers organizing into unions in California.

One study done by the SEIU noted the reason cited most frequently for “going union” among women in California is the desire to improve or obtain health care through making the job a union job.

The unionization rate increased a point to 14.7 percent in California, while in the Northeast states the rate increased slightly to 18.7 percent last year, from 18.4 percent.

Healthcare affects everyone. Everyone is beginning to realize this. There is a consensus forming across the economy that quality health care must become part of basic working conditions. It really isn’t hard to understand why.

Have you ever been touched by a miracle? I have. Holding a tiny baby, you realize the depth of dependence that tiny life has on you. Parents make promises that have to be kept, no matter what. That’s when having the security of a union health plan backing you up is truly meaningful.

American medicine can be the best in the world if you have the insurance to pay for it. When a family faces a medical crisis, having no insurance or too little coverage is the number one reason people declare bankruptcy in the U.S. The irony is that at that point you qualify for federal Medicaid coverage.

When I worked at Local 802 during the first Glasel term in the 1980’s, there was an attempt to create comprehensive care in the 802 plan. Things did not work out. A patchwork of coverages with Blue Cross discounts is as far as the union got.

Comprehensive union plans reliably paying health care costs were a staple for every union cop, fireman, carpenter, painter, nurse and a dozen other occupations for decades. The creation of the new A+ level of coverage with hospitalization gives musicians a truly comprehensive level of benefits for the first time ever.

Whenever other AFM locals have negotiated similar benefits, those benefits has always been included in an employer’s or other union’s health plan. Ours is a remarkable achievement and goes against industrial trends.

Health care is always a key issue in organizing. Respect for your body in the form of comprehensive medical benefits and safe working conditions is one of the most important things any union can ever do in serving the membership interests.

I think it is apropos to write on this item during Women’s History Month because the leader in this round of bargaining for progress is a woman.

When I returned to Local 802 in 2005, I met a neighbor of mine in the hall on the second floor at the 802 union hall. She was in dire straits. Her musician husband was terminally ill; he was still working but was receiving elaborate and expensive care. (Their son and my daughter were in the fourth grade together at the time.) Fortunately the family had the resources to buy private insurance.

She told me that afternoon that the union plan was not really relevant to their situation. I was saddened both by her family’s pain and by this union’s irrelevance to their situation. I found myself hoping the union could improve dramatically in this area.

I’m glad to report that there was nothing false about that hope.