Southern Workers Unite Around Medicare for All: “A Tremendous Liberation From Your Boss”

Workers from across the South converged in Charlotte, N.C., on September 21 to kick off a Medicare for All campaign.

Jonathan Michels November 19, 2019

(Photo courtesy of Southern Workers Assembly)

CHAR­LOTTE, N.C. — A line of cars rolls up to the gov­ern­ment cen­ter of the largest city in a state tied with neigh­bor South Car­oli­na for least union­ized in the coun­try. Mem­bers of the South­ern Work­ers Assem­bly (SWA) emerge from the cars and join a pick­et line of Char­lotte city work­ers. They hoist a ban­ner declar­ing The City Works Because We Do” and chant What do we want? Medicare for All! When do we want it? Now!”

“Having Medicare for All is a tremendous liberation from your boss,” says Ed Bruno, former Southern regional director of NNU.

SWA is a coali­tion of work­er com­mit­tees and labor unions, includ­ing Nation­al Nurs­es Unit­ed (NNU), the Inter­na­tion­al Longshoremen’s Asso­ci­a­tion, and Unit­ed Elec­tri­cal, Radio and Machine Work­ers of Amer­i­ca. Mem­bers from across the South con­verged Sep­tem­ber 21 to kick off a cam­paign for the imme­di­ate pas­sage of Medicare for All, known in the House as H.R. 1384.

Although union­ized work­ers typ­i­cal­ly have access to some type of employ­er-based insur­ance (and often pay less in deductibles than nonunion work­ers), sky­rock­et­ing pre­mi­ums and poor cov­er­age con­tin­ue to ignite unrest in all types of work­places. An esti­mat­ed 23.6 mil­lion U.S. work­ers with employ­er-based cov­er­age spend at least 10% or more of their income on pre­mi­ums and out-of-pock­et costs, while wages remain stag­nant. Accord­ing to a new report by the Kaiser Fam­i­ly Foun­da­tion, the aver­age work­er con­tri­bu­tion for fam­i­ly cov­er­age increased 25% since 2014 to a whop­ping $6,015 annually.

In Char­lotte, Dominic Har­ris, 31, works as a util­i­ty tech­ni­cian and also serves as pres­i­dent of the Char­lotte City Work­ers Union. With­out Har­ris and his fel­low work­ers, the gild­ed finan­cial hub nick­named Wall Street of the South could not function.

We only have some­thing to gain,” Har­ris says. Har­ris and oth­er mem­bers of the SWA make it clear this is a work­er-led fight to sev­er the chain between health­care and employers.

Har­ris and oth­er mem­bers of the SWA made it clear they do not see this as a fight for a hand­out; it’s a work­er-led fight for a uni­ver­sal health pro­gram to sev­er the chain between health­care and employers.

Hav­ing Medicare for All is a tremen­dous lib­er­a­tion from your boss,” says Ed Bruno, for­mer South­ern region­al direc­tor of NNU.

When near­ly 50,000 Unit­ed Auto Work­ers (UAW) walked off in Sep­tem­ber, one of their major griev­ances was the ris­ing cost of health insur­ance. Gen­er­al Motors (GM) respond­ed by can­cel­ing their ben­e­fits in an attempt to force work­ers back. GM restored health ben­e­fits 11 days lat­er, and UAW final­ly reached an agree­ment with GM after more than five weeks of striking.

SWA mem­bers believe a work­er-led cam­paign for Medicare for All has the poten­tial to gal­va­nize a work­ing-class move­ment in the South after decades of anti-union leg­is­la­tion like so-called right-to-work laws. Just 2.7% of work­ers in North and South Car­oli­na belong to unions. Mean­while, health out­comes in the South lag too, and infant mor­tal­i­ty rates remain the high­est in the nation.

Health­care is a human right,” says Leslie Rid­dle, a state employ­ee who trav­eled from West Vir­ginia to join the pick­et line. Rid­dle, 44, receives cov­er­age from the Pub­lic Employ­ees Insur­ance Agency, the same state-based health­care whose pro­gram incit­ed West Vir­ginia teach­ers to walk out in 2018. Rid­dle has Type 1 dia­betes and is aller­gic to some forms of insulin, which means she could die with­out the cor­rect for­mu­la. When Riddle’s insur­ance reclas­si­fied her insulin as non-for­mu­la­ry, her out-of-pock­et cost rose dra­mat­i­cal­ly. She sur­vived only with finan­cial sup­port from her par­ents and free sam­ples from her doctor.

Under Medicare for All, copay­ments, pre­mi­ums and deductibles would be elim­i­nat­ed, remov­ing finan­cial bar­ri­ers to care. This is vital for peo­ple with chron­ic health conditions.

SWA is focus­ing its efforts on reach­ing the over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of South­ern work­ers with­out a union. The group sets up work­place com­mit­tees that help work­ers cal­cu­late how much of their wages are eat­en up by health­care expens­es, demon­strat­ing why Medicare for All would be a huge win. As the 2020 Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry sea­son draws clos­er, SWA mem­bers plan to orga­nize town halls and peti­tion gov­ern­ment offi­cials to pass res­o­lu­tions in sup­port of Medicare for All, to keep issue at the fore­front of the debates.

Sekia Roy­all agreed to orga­nize a work­ers’ com­mit­tee in sup­port of Medicare for All after she real­ized that guar­an­teed health care would allow her to focus on her dream job.

Roy­all cur­rent­ly works in the kitchen at the O’Berry Neu­ro-Med­ical Treat­ment Cen­ter in Golds­boro, N.C., prepar­ing meals for patients with men­tal dis­abil­i­ties and neu­rocog­ni­tive dis­or­ders like Alzheimer’s disease. 

In her free time, though, Roy­all runs a cater­ing busi­ness spe­cial­iz­ing in Kansas City bar­be­cue, a rar­i­ty among the famous smoke­hous­es that dom­i­nate east­ern North Car­oli­na. While Roy­all appre­ci­ates the impor­tant role she fills for her patients at O’Berry, her pas­sion lies in run­ning her own com­pa­ny. But pur­su­ing her dream feels unre­al­is­tic to Roy­all, in part because it would mean los­ing her health­care cov­er­age pro­vid­ed through her employer.

One of the rea­sons that I haven’t tried to quit my job and go full-time with my cater­ing is because I do need health­care cov­er­age,” Roy­all says. 

road­en­ing the labor strug­gle through the right to health­care is what inspired Bruno and oth­er vet­er­an activists, like Black Work­ers for Jus­tice co-founder Sal­adin Muham­mad, to throw them­selves into SWA’s campaign.

Leg­is­la­tion has nev­er pre­ced­ed the social move­ment,” Bruno says. It was always the upheaval that pre­ced­ed leg­is­la­tion. You can pret­ty much take that to the bank.”

Though still in its infan­cy, the South­ern Work­ers Assem­bly cam­paign could prove to be a crit­i­cal test case for build­ing the kind of large, grass­roots move­ment that past cam­paigns have shown will be nec­es­sary to over­come the pow­er­ful cor­po­rate inter­ests bent on defeat­ing a uni­ver­sal, nation­al health program.

Medicare for All sup­port­ers face stiff oppo­si­tion from drug com­pa­nies, pri­vate insur­ers and oth­er med­ical prof­i­teers who are already well-financed and uni­fied in attack­ing reforms that would decrease their prof­it mar­gins. One exam­ple is the Part­ner­ship for America’s Health Care Future, a cor­po­rate front group cre­at­ed to stymie the grow­ing Medicare for All move­ment by pres­sur­ing Demo­c­ra­t­ic law­mak­ers to pro­tect the Afford­able Care Act, steer­ing the par­ty away from Medicare for All in 2020.

SWA mem­bers believe they can over­come their well-heeled oppo­si­tion by mobi­liz­ing enough workers.

If we can get every work­er in every work­place to sup­port just one thing, then that thing will get passed,” Har­ris says. There’s noth­ing that a com­bined group of work­ers can’t accomplish.”

Jonathan Michels is a free­lance jour­nal­ist based in Durham, N.C.
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