The GM Strike Says More about Unions than Healthcare

Graphic by Alexis Cormier

Nearly 50,000 General Motors employees took up signs and took to the streets, marching for higher pay and increased benefits on Sept. 17.  In response to these demands, GM announced it would cut the health coverage of the employees on strike. This decision forced employees to sign up for insurance under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA), a temporary insurance through the United Automobile Workers (UAW). This decision forced employees to sign up for insurance under the Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (COBRA), a temporary insurance through the United Automobile Workers (UAW). 

Mass chaos ensued, leaving many employees to pay for emergency medical expenses out of pocket while scrambling to regain their health insurance. In one case, a woman awoke from stomach surgery only to discover her husband no longer had insurance to cover the procedure.  To the employees’ relief, GM reinstated health benefits beginning Sept. 24. 

However, the entire incident sheds light on the necessity for healthcare reform and reveals the insufficiency of unions to protect and provide for workers’ health coverage.  If laws could re-empower unions and strengthen the voice of the workforce, the government could give workers a more active role in their health without resorting to deprivatizing medical insurance altogether.

These concerns have led many politicians, including Democratic presidential candidate and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, to cite the GM incident as a tangible example of the need for a universal healthcare system.  Certainly, this argument holds some weight. The idea that large corporations can hold employees hostage by threatening their medical coverage is a terrifying one for millions of Americans. Sanders argues that without a stable, well-regulated entity providing health insurance for the masses, the health of middle-class Americans can fall victim to the whims of large corporations.  Sanders and his supporters claim the GM incident exemplifies the possibility of companies with ulterior motives exploiting power over employees’ medical security to coerce workers into cooperation. 

However, such concerns about the relationship between healthcare and corporate power come down solely to corporate power.  If abuse of power by big businesses could be better combated by unified workers, if employees’ voices could be heard again, and if striking and protests could alter the behavior of a company, workers could increase their autonomy in health care rather than giving that autonomy solely to the government. Though Sanders makes a logical point about the dangers of private health insurance, the danger would be better eliminated if unions were given more power to protect employees from the harmful actions of corporate decision-making.  Healthcare should be a conversation between professionals and patients, a conversation mediated by a third-party with the patients’ best interests in mind. 

Unions have the power to fulfill this role for the working class.

The joining of middle-class voices, not an entirely government-run healthcare system, allows middle-class workers to negotiate for their preferences and needs.  After all, before the strike, the UAW had incredible insurance policies because of their power in numbers. According to a 2015 study, “[m]embers of collectively bargained plans contributed 4 percent and 6 percent of the cost for single and family premiums, respectively, as opposed to 18 percent and 29 percent for members of employer-based plans.”  These premiums pay for better benefits and a more comprehensive health plan.  

Through unions, workers can negotiate much better health insurance—better than the government could ever offer them. Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden recognized this important power wielded by unions when crafting his stance on universal healthcare.  

“If you like your health care plan, or your employer-based plan, you can keep it,” Biden claimed in a campaign speech, commenting on the ability of different groups to obtain adequate, even superior, plans through Obamacare.  If unions could effectively protect these benefits and general health care from the meddling of large corporations, workers would benefit. 

With these benefits in mind, the problems of the GM strike take a different shape. Although their coverage would be safe from the threats of corporations with a universal health care system in place, the GM employees would have decreased benefits and less autonomy.

Legislators can craft new bills that allow the government to better insulate the health- benefits of the working class without unionized workers forfeiting their power of negotiation to the government. Laws that protect striking workers or that mandate warnings before coverage cuts, so that employees have time to switch to COBRA, would aptly prevent a situation like this from occurring again.  Such legal action could re-empower strikes and protests as ways to protect workers’ rights and give workers peace of mind regarding their medical coverage. After all, health and wellness are too precious to be taken hostage. 

Emily Anderson is a second-year English major. She can be reached at enander1@uci.edu.