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On Wednesday, House Democrats introduced a landmark bill that would make it illegal for employers to cut off healthcare benefits to striking workers. The Striking Workers Healthcare Protection Act would subject employers to a fine of up to $50,000, which could be doubled by the National Labor Relations Board for employers who have been in violation of the policy within the past five years.
Rep. Cindy Axne (D-Iowa) says she was inspired to introduce the legislation after John Deere threatened to take away healthcare policies from workers who were on strike in her district last fall. Several of the bill’s co-sponsors represent districts where cutting healthcare has been used by companies as a strike-breaking tactic, including Rep. Steven Cohen (D-Tenn.) whose constituents were among the 1,400 striking workers at Kelloggs’ cereal plants in four states. Other co-sponsors include Reps. Brian Higgins (D-N.Y.), Andy Levin (D-Mich.), Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), Bill Pascrell (D-N.J.), Linda Sánchez (D-Calif.) and Nikema Williams (D-Ga.).
If passed, the legislation could better position workers to negotiate with their employers for better wages, benefits and working conditions.
“The threat itself is used to break strikes and force workers to accept contracts that don’t meet their needs. That’s why I wrote the bill,” Rep. Axne tells In These Times. “I heard about children who need their parents’ health insurance because they have asthma or needed glasses, or workers who need access to medication. I was appalled, and soon after I learned from other colleagues in D.C. that this had also been happening to their workers in recent years.”
In October 2021, 10,000 members of the United Auto Workers (UAW) went on strike at John Deere for the first time in 35 years, demanding better salaries and overtime pay while opposing proposed increased healthcare premiums and a two-tiered wage system. The company responded by threatening to eliminate healthcare benefits for workers and their families over the duration of the strike, before ultimately reversing course.
“Unfortunately, employers use this threat to discourage workers from going on strike or to push workers to end a strike before an adequate contract agreement has been reached,” says Laurel Lucia, the Health Care Program Director at the University of California Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education. “With this threat looming, workers aren’t fully able to exercise their rights to a fight for a strong collective bargaining agreement.”
Had John Deere cut workers off from their healthcare, the UAW promised to pick up the cost of COBRA payments, but members would have lost coverage for dental and vision. However, the UAW, with its nearly one million active and retired members, has a $790 million strike fund. Other striking workers aren’t always afforded this benefit.
Nearly 25,000 workers went out on strike last October across a range of industries — including healthcare, steel, telecommunications, coal mining, production plants and carpentry — in what many media outlets dubbed “striketober.” The 1,400 striking workers in Kellogg’s production plants lost their healthcare for the duration of their 11-week strike, and were left with COBRA payments of up to $2,980, with one workers’ daughter undergoing open-heart surgery during this period. Workers were provided with $105 in weekly strike pay by the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International Union, and largely relied on crowdfunding to offset their lost income.
Workers at the Warrior Met Coal mines in Alabama have been on strike without pay or healthcare for 10 months now, and their union, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), estimates they have collectively lost out on roughly $1.1 billion in pay, overtime, and other benefits.
Last summer, hundreds of Frito-Lay workers went out on strike, and cited the loss of healthcare during the walkout as a major issue. “The reason so many people voted for the contract wasn’t because anybody liked it, it’s just that there was such a scare because as soon as we walked off Frito-Lay immediately cut off our insurance,” Chantel Mendenhall, a crew coordinator at Frito-Lay, told Labor Notes at the time.
In a statement released on Wednesday, UAW President Ray Curry said, “Rep. Axne’s bill protects working families from corporations that would seek to use the healthcare of members as a pressure point in a workers voice to advocate for better working conditions. This one simple bill by Rep. Axne protects the dignity of all working families and we encourage Congress to take action and pass this common sense bill.”
The House bill has been endorsed by a host of major labor unions including the AFL-CIO, UAW, United Food and Commercial Workers, Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers, and Grain Millers, Service Employees International Union, Communications Workers of America, UMWA, International Association of Iron Workers and the United Steelworkers.
While the $50,000 fine under the Striking Workers Healthcare Protection Act can be doubled for those who have violated the policy within the last five years, the effect it would have on multi-billion dollar companies is still yet to be determined.
In 2019, for example, General Motors, worth an estimated $150 billions, dropped nearly 50,000 striking workers from their healthcare plans as contract negotiations came to an impasse. These workers were supported by the UAW strike fund.
“Penalties of that size are probably going to be a greater deterrent for smaller employers than larger employers,” says Lucia. “But even in the context of a large corporation, it seems like an important step to codify that eliminating health insurance during a strike is an unlawful practice.”
Using the loss of healthcare as a strike-breaking tactic highlights one of the many problems that come with an employment-based healthcare system, as currently operates in the United States. Among the thousands of workers who have been on strike over the past year, healthcare has been a central issue at the bargaining table, including at John Deere, Kellogg’s and the Warrior Met Coal mines. Workers are fed up with higher premiums, poorer coverage and the loss of retiree health benefits. Some union advocates have pointed to implementing a universal, Medicare for All system as a more long-term solution to the issue of employer-based healthcare.
“This problem has been highlighted during the pandemic when many workers lost their health insurance at a time when access to healthcare was particularly critical,” says Lucia. “If everyone was covered by one healthcare program, such as under a single-payer system, workers wouldn’t have to worry about changes to their healthcare when their employment changes or when they go on strike.”
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Indigo Olivier is a reporter-researcher for The New Republic and a 2020-2021 Leonard C. Goodman investigative reporting fellow. Her writing on politics, labor and higher education has appeared in the Guardian, The Nation and Jacobin, among other outlets.