Sunday, May 17, 2009

When Unions, EFCA, and Health Insurance Get Personal

I know you are not supposed to reprint a newspaper column in its entirety on a blog - all that stuff about fair use versus copyright infringement. But I am going to pull a point of privilege, with apologies to the newspaper that was kind of enough to run this column in its original form, last Friday.

You see, it's a small newspaper, with editions out of Manassas and Culpepper. Probably more people read it than read my blog. But I want to share my husband's column with my friends because I'm so danged proud of Dan. So, please indulge a wife's pride. And, yeah, it's about EFCA :)
Employee Free Choice Act Will Grow the Economy, Help Middle Class

I come from a working-class family. I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, where my father was a rank-and-file tool-and-die machinist. He followed the space industry, and when he had the chance to buy back his old home in Tennessee in 1968, he did.

I got to see first hand the difference between working in an area with a lot of unions and an area without. As a kid, you don’t know what that means; as an adult, you learn what that means.

Dad had a job with a pension and health care while he was working in Cleveland. When he moved home to Tennessee, he couldn’t even put on his job application in some cases that he worked for a union company.

So my father, who never graduated from high school, made sure that his kids went to school. Both Mom and Dad fought and struggled and told us to “make sure you get a job with a pension because it sure beats eating snowballs in the winter.” My father had some illnesses and it cost us some things at home. As a kid, you don’t understand; as an adult you realize what your parents went through.

I’m a member of the Seafarers International Union. I’ve been employed by them for 22 years. With the Seafarers, I was able to do what my father suggested: find a job that has a pension and find a job that has health care. Little did I know how important that would be until 1994 when I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma. To this day, I have no idea what the medical costs were.

I do know, however, one thing that happened, and I know I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for the union. Eighteen hours before I was supposed to have a bone marrow transplant, the national insurance company called my house and said, “You’ve done everything we’ve asked you to do the previous six months: going through chemotherapy, going through all the tests, having everything that you needed to do. We’re not covering you anymore.”

I called my union. The next day, I’m being wheeled into the hospital, put under and when I came out, everything was taken care of. The union called the insurance company and threatened to pull the whole national account. An average person doesn’t have that advantage. An average person doesn’t have someone to stand behind them and work for them like that. That’s one reason why unions are important.

The middle class is struggling. As unions become smaller and smaller, the chances that you get a job with health care, with a pension and with benefits get fewer and fewer. As unions shrink, benefits for the middle class shrink.

Common sense guides the three principles of the Employee Free Choice Act.

* First, workers should be the ones who decide how they form a union, and it ought to be free from employer intimidation.
* Two, there should be real penalties when corporations break the law by threatening, coercing or firing workers. These penalties already are on the books when a union attempts such acts.
* Last, when workers decide they want a union, it should mean something. A company shouldn’t be allowed to delay the bargaining process indefinitely like they do now; in fact, almost half of the time, workers who decide they want a union never get their first contract.

The point is, workers have hit a breaking point. A major way to get out of this economic crisis is to let workers band together to bargain for the wages and benefits they deserve. We saw this work in the midst of the Great Depression when the National Labor Relations Act originally passed.

What workers wanted then is the same thing we want now. The Employee Free Choice Act will grow the economy, close the wage gap between the wealthy and the rest of us and strengthen the middle class.
By the way, the story Dan told about his insurance company refusing to cover his bone marrow transplant and informing us at the 11th hour is absolutely true. What Dan didn't say, and what is seared into my memory, is that we were not told until Dan was already in the hospital and preparing for that grueling medical procedure.

He was nervous enough to be facing that. And then he had to hear that it was to be delayed, while I argued with an insurance company. The reason the insurance company gave for turning down the claim was that they considered the bone marrow transplant "experimental." Actually, at that point, it was not. It had a proven record of success and would soon become standard treatment. In fact, within several years, it was replaced by an even more cutting edge treatment, stem cell transplants.

I begged the doctors and the hospital to go ahead with the procedure and vowed that I would pay them the full amount no matter how I had to raise the money. Of course, as Dan mentioned, his union threatened to pull their entire and very lucrative contract if the insurance company didn't honor their original obligation. Meanwhile, my own insurance company had agreed to pay for the bone marrow transplant. For all that people used to advise me that, for young people, we were "over-covered" with insurance, I learned the hard way never to trust or depend on only one company for health insurance coverage. We remain gratefully "over-covered."

Basically, his greedy company almost denied Dan his life. So, please, don't ever tell me we don't need significant health care reform or stronger unions. It gets personal!


Brian W. Schoeneman said...

Damn. How have I never heard this story before!?

Great column. I don't think that anyone, on either side of the aisle, can argue that health care reform is critically needed. The only question is how we do it.

AnonymousIsAWoman said...

Brian, I can't answer your question in the brief space of this comment - and especially in my brief lunch break :)

I'm not sure how Dan never told you that story. But you can ask him some time. How can we get in contact with you?