There’s an old Russian tale about two farmers. One says, “He has a cow and I don’t. I want his cow to die.”
Sometimes I feel like people say that about those of us fortunate enough to be in unions. Why do you have sick days? Why do you have holidays? Why can’t you get fired for no reason?
As a unionist, I think differently from the farmer. I wonder why other Americans can’t have sick days, holidays and job protections. More than that, though, I wonder why other Americans don’t have health insurance, or have to dig deep into their bank accounts to pay exorbitant amounts for it every month.
On weekends, I work as a musician. One Sunday, I had lunch with a banjo player while waiting for our job to start. I remember we both ordered Reuben sandwiches. On Tuesday, that banjo player had chest pains. He decided not to go to the ER because it would’ve cost him thousands of dollars he didn’t have. On Wednesday, he was dead.
I don’t have to worry about going to the ER. I have a $150 co-pay now, but that won’t stop me. It’s my hope that my union and others will grow, and that fewer Americans will face such stark choices.
Yet here in New York City, we’re moving backward. If and when I retire, if my wife and I choose traditional Medicare instead of a new, inferior Medicare Advantage program it’s launching, it will cost us almost $5,000 a year. That’s how the city plans to save money on health care, since the feds would foot the bill for the new plan.
A rising tide lifts all boats, and that’s exactly what union is for. But we seem to be pushing boats underwater.
There is a better answer. Just about every industrialized country has come up with it in one way or another. We need to provide everyone with health care. A giant step toward that in our state would be the New York Health Act. Sadly, my union, the United Federation of Teachers, opposes it.
I’ve heard several rationales as to why. One is that it would blow a big hole in the state budget, precluding education funding. I suppose it could, but we could and should find ways to address that. We don’t improve one public good by abandoning another. And yes, taxes on those who can afford them could support this. It boggles my mind how health could be an objectionable expense. What on earth is more important?
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If we passed this bill, a whole state could negotiate prices with 500 hospitals better than 500 different companies and union plans do. Perhaps all the money that I and other New Yorkers pay toward co-pays and other medical expenses could go toward it too.
Another rationale behind my union’s opposition is that we union members have health benefits that are somehow not included in NYHA. I know that sponsors of the bill offered to modify it so as to satisfy union objections.
Perhaps we could keep them. A better approach, though, would be to make sure all New Yorkers got whatever benefits we have. We shouldn’t act like a gang of spiteful farmers.
It behooves us, as unionists and citizens, to offer benefits to all. Health care, like other societal goods, is not a zero-sum game. We simply cannot pit ourselves against other New Yorkers. We ought not to be in the business of saying we have this and you can’t. That, in fact, is an anti-union position.
When wages go up in union shops, non-union shops also follow. We should do absolutely everything in our power to make sure our brothers and sisters across the state have health benefits, just as we do. In fact, we should get out of the health business as much as possible and focus more on our profession.
It behooves us to support and enable the New York Health Act. Given the current political climate precludes universal health care on a national level, this is our best chance for a significant step forward. That’s how it was done in Canada, and if they can do it, we can too.
Goldstein is a teacher of English as a New Language at Francis Lewis High School in Queens.