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As presidential candidates debate health care, labor unions are split over Medicare for All proposals

Hartford Courant - 2/18/2020

Medicare for All has emerged as a signature issue in the Democratic primary, with progressive Bernie Sanders making it the centerpiece of his campaign.

But for organized labor, the idea of replacing private insurance with a government-run model raises a host of complicated questions. Some unions, who fought for health coverage at the negotiating table and gave up other benefits such as wage increases, are increasingly concerned about how Medicare for All would affect their members.

“There’s significant division within the labor movement about it,” said Larry Dorman, spokesman for Council 4 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

The divide is playing out in Nevada, where the powerful Culinary Workers Union Local 226 has expressed skepticism about Sanders’ plan. The Vermont senator, who currently leads in the delegate count, is proposing a national health insurance system that would cover all Americans.

In the run-up to the Feb. 22 Nevada caucuses, the union distributed flyers that said Sanders’ plan would “end Culinary health care.”

Sanders, a senator from Vermont, said his proposal would offer coverage that is as good or better than that currently offered to members of the culinary union. “I very much appreciate the struggle that the culinary union is waging to improve the lives of working families in Nevada and throughout this country, and I agree with their key goals,” Sanders said in a statement. “In the richest country in the history of the world, one job should be enough for every worker to raise a family, to retire with dignity, and to live the American Dream.”

Several of his centrist Democratic opponents seized on the issue.

“I stand with @Culinary226 and let’s be clear: attacks on the union are unacceptable,” Amy Klobuchar, the senator from Minnesota, tweeted. “I come from a family of proud union members and I know when unions are strong, America is strong.”

“Where I come from, I don’t like people telling me what I have to choose -- that’s why my plan will give people the option to keep their existing plan or buy into a new Medicare-like public option,” former Vice President Joe Biden said. “In contrast, Medicare for All eliminates private and union insurance plans.”

The Culinary Workers Union isn’t the only labor organization expressing concerns about Medicare for All. In August, Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation, cautioned Democratic candidates to ensure there’s a role for “those hard, hard-fought-for, high-quality plans that we’ve negotiated.”

But Trumka also reaffirmed the labor federation’s support for the concept of Medicare for All, which has been a priority for many unions since the 1940s.

The Massachusetts AFL-CIO broke with the national federation six weeks later, unanimously endorsing a resolution that it would only back candidates who support Medicare for All.

The Connecticut AFL-CIO has taken no position on the issue because it only has jurisdiction over state matters, said spokesman David C. Dal Zin.

Several Connecticut labor leaders said they support Medicare for All.

Xavier Gordon, a career counselor and development specialist at the state Department of Labor in Bridgeport and a union president, is backing Sanders.

“I know we bargained for our benefits, but if you ask me, would I want that for my whole community, why not?” Gordon said. “We’re one of the richest countries in the world, yet we can’t offer what a lot of other countries offer to their people.”

Good health care coverage shouldn’t be “only a union thing,” Gordon said. “Bernie is trying to say that this is something we should all have.”

But, Gordon added, “I’m not going to say all of my brothers and sisters are going to agree with me at this point.”

Sandy DeCampos, a unionized municipal employee from Manchester, is in favor of Medicare for All, though she has not decided which Democratic presidential contender will win her vote in the state’s April 28 primary.

“I’m very grateful to have health care, but I have a sister who had no insurance until Obamacare came in,” DeCampos said. Noting that President Trump has vowed to dismantle the Affordable Care Act, she said, “we need to come up with something.”

Ending private insurance and providing a government-run plan for all Americans would also free up unions to focus on other issues at the bargaining table, such as wage increases and better retirement benefits, DeCampos said.

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