Obamacare quietly undermines unions

Washington Post
Say what you want about Republicans’ obsession with destroying Obamacare. One thing they can’t be accused of is acting in calculated, partisan self-interest.
If all the GOP cared about was hurting Democrats, Republicans might support the health-care law—because it threatens a core Democratic Party constituency: organized labor.
Collective bargaining in this country developed under a sys tem of employer-based health insurance, which government encouraged via generous tax breaks. In European nations with state-run universal cover age, unions focus on pay and working conditions. Here, they have the added function of negotiating for health benefits.
By now, that’s much, if not most, of what unions do in return for members’dues.
Obamacare undermines this function and, therefore, labor’s already diminished power to attract and maintain members, whose dues fill the campaign treasuries upon which many Democratic politicians depend.
The law does this in several ways. The first is the 40 percent excise tax on “Cadillac” health plans: employer-provided insur ance costing more than $10,200 for individuals and $27,500 for families. This cost-control mea sure, widely hailed by health care economists, takes effect in 2018 and will hit many union plans. Over time, it will create a de facto cap on the benefits for which unions can bargain,
Obamacare’s individual health-care exchanges also disfavor unions. When organizers try to recruit members today, health care is often a big selling point. What will organiz ers tell workers who, thanks to Obamacare, already have access to subsidized health care?
Then there are the “Taft-Hartley” plans, which serve unions whose members work for various companies over their careers, rather than for one firm. These plans, common in the hospitality and construction industries, gather contributions from employers and buy insur ance for 6.2 million active participants, according to the Labor Department.
Obamacare menaces these affordable, portable plans by providing both workers and em ployers an affordable, portable alternative — the exchanges — that requires no union middle man and is partly subsidized by the tax on union plans. Sudden ly, nonunion employers have a new competitive advantage.
Laborers’ International Union President Terry O’Sullivan is so upset that he has threatened to support repeal of Obamacare unless the administration gives tax subsidies to Taft-Hartley plans, like it does for individuals on the exchanges. Alas for O’Sul livan, there appears to be no le gal way to do so.
A natural question: If Obamacare has so many pro visions bad for unions, why did most of them support passage?
It’s a bit of a mystery. The answer seems to be that Obamacare was a progressive goal, unions are progressive, ergo unions were for Obamacare.
They did negotiate changes, such as a lower “Cadillac tax” with a later start date. Perhaps labor thought it could go back to Congress after the bill passed for relief on the tax and other is sues, such as Taft-Hartley plans. If so, that became impossible after the GOP took back the House by campaigning against Obamacare.
In reaction to the unions’ clash with Obamacare, Republi cans offer little but rhetoric, the gist of which is “we told you so,” and continue demanding total repeal, as if the unions’ objections were additional valid reasons to oppose the law.
What they seem not to grasp is that the features of the law that the unions hate are those that many Americans, including many who do not currently vote Republican, might like: the end of health insurance “job lock,” say, or bending the cost curve through limits on Cadillac plans.
If Republicans were smart, they might support those aspects of the law, instead of total repeal. But, as we have seen in recent days, that is a very big “if.”
Charles Lane is a member of The Washing ton Post’s editorial board.

Leave a Reply