The Capitol Hill Shop Steward has been on the road lately, spending time in New York City for contract negotiations with GE -- the General Electric Company. My commitment to unionism is always greatly reinvigorated after sitting down with GE for five weeks.
GE came to this set of talks armed with dozens of demands to shift more healthcare costs onto the backs of our members. No surprise. GE only made $7.2 billion profit last year. GE healthcare costs for its hourly workforce declined 32 percent since 1990, translating into a savings of a mere $180 million.
GE's attack suddenly reminded me of the need for national healthcare reform. Remember that? I remember that it ended up a big fiasco. I remember that GE's chief exe cutive, Jack Welch, was a member of the big business "Jackson Hole Group" that helped President Clinton dream up his unsolvable puzzle called "managed competition." I also recollect that in the end GE used its considerable political influence to help kill off any chance of healthcare reform.
While tangling with GE this summer, we got word that the Senate had voted to "save" our Medicare system. Great timing -- now we've got healthcare wars on two fronts. It's like a tag-team match where your partner gets tossed out of the ring and is knocked unconscious.
The Senate voted June 25 to slash Medicare spending by $136 billion. Their bill would increase Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67, institute a co-pay for some kinds of home healthcare, link Part B premiums to your income level for the first time, and force seniors to set up "Medical Savings Accounts" so they can pay more of their own bills.
It wasn't even close. The 73-27 vote was another fine example of 52 Republicans and 21 Democrats sticking it to working people. They've got us covered: Big business destroys our healthcare while we're working, and the Senate makes sure that we're screwed when our work days are done.
Why the frantic need to force our retirees to pay up? Maybe it has something to do with finding the money to pay for the huge tax cuts that both parties and the White House want to hand out to big business and the rich as part of this year's budget. Just two days after the Medicare ripoff, the Senate voted 80-18 to cut taxes by $77 billion, in part by reducing the capital gains tax rate. The House bill would give big business even more.
While the final tax cut bill has yet to be thrashed out between the House and Senate, you can be sure that any tax cut working people get will be about the size of a fly speck, while the big boys will be hauling away their take in an armoured car.
As I write, Congress and Clinton are putting the final touches on the Medicare bill. The only good news is that raising the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67 is causing bipartisan heartburn with almost every member of the House, probably because they all have to run for reelection next year. But the other proposals to hit up seniors for money are still in play.
Stealing two years of Medicare coverage from future retirees is just a follow up to the bipartisan crime politicians pulled off back in 1983. In case you didn't realize it, that's when Republicans and Democrats voted 243-102 to support President Reagan's scheme to raise the Social Security retirement age from 65 to 67. Some members of Congress would like to raise it to as high as 70.
What's it like to work until 67 or 70? I can hear the human resources director already: "I'm sorry, but you're just not a team player anymore, and we have to let you go because of global competitive pressures." What Mr. Boss really meant to say was, "Get out! Your fired! I'm replacing you with a 25-year-old because I'm running a business here, not a nursing home!" It's all because we didn't exercise enough "personal responsibility" to adequately "empower" ourselves to change careers for the tenth time in order to keep working until we are 67 or 69 or 70. Or call Dr. Kevorkian.
Well, the GE workforce doesn't have to worry as much as the rest of us. They can take advantage of GE's new "Care for Yourself" program: the company is now offering counseling to help workers in "coping with the changes in your life, including finding time for yourself, meeting household responsibilities . . . explaining separation and divorce to your kids, adjusting to an older relative moving in, creating a will...planning for retirement." See, they know the trouble we're in for -- after all, they're causing it.
Maybe next contract we can get them to offer us therapy to help us deal with a two-party system that conspires with employers to make life hell for working families. Meanwhile, take a hint: Build the Labor Party.
Chris Townsend is Political Action Director of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE).
Conversation with David Himmelstein