Ehrenreich on Labor

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Barbara Ehrenreich has some advice for labor organizers in her latest Progressive column, including this tidbit: “More than once, union organizers have told me that goals like universal health insurance are irrelevant because the union can win health insurance for its members, or at least those who survive the organizing drive.” Indeed, that’s not just true now, but it’s been true historically; as Jill Quadagno writes in One Nation Uninsured, one of the reasons—though not the only reason—why the United States didn’t get universal health care in the 1950s while nearly every other Western democracy did was that labor was somewhat divided on the subject. Union leaders like Samuel Gompers and George Meany preferred to negotiate health benefits through collective bargaining agreements rather than go through Congress. (During World War II, the wage freeze meant that labor could only negotiate for better health benefits, so that’s the route they took, and then just sort of stuck with it after the war.) In the end, infighting over tactics meant that there was never a strong, unified labor push to get universal health care on the table. Union leaders would be ill-advised to make the same mistake again.

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