Facebook Instagram Twitter YouTube

This is What Happens When the Boss Controls Your Health Care

The decision by General Motors executives to stop funding the health insurance of striking employees is yet another example of the way that employers can use such benefits as a cudgel to punish workers. A system of free and universal public health care is the only solution.

James Dennis Hoff

September 19, 2019
Facebook Twitter Share
GM Chief-Executive Mary Batta is expected to be paid $22 million by GM this year (photo credit: Bill Pugliano, Getty Images)

Early Monday morning, 49,000 General Motors workers, members of the United Auto Workers union (UAW), walked off the job to protest low wages and a cruel two-tier wage system that has left thousands of “temporary” workers living at or close to the minimum wage. The walkout, which is estimated to cost GM as much as $100 million a day, is the biggest auto-workers’ strike in decades.

In response to the strike, GM Chief-Executive Mary Batta, who is slated to earn an astounding $22 million this year, immediately and without warning stopped funding for the employer-provided healthcare for all striking GM workers on Tuesday morning. This decision was made despite the fact that the company had promised just a day before that they would cover the cost of employee health insurance until the end of the month. The unexpected move has left UAW members and their families without access to vital, sometimes life-sustaining health services.

Just hours after the announcement, stories began pouring in of UAW members being denied essential care. In Parma Ohio, for instance, the child of one GM employee had to cancel a vital cancer treatment because of the loss of benefits. In Tennessee, UAW member, Dennis Urbania, says he was forced to postpone life-saving heart-transplant surgery because he can no longer provide proof of insurance. Meanwhile thousands of GM workers and their family members face potentially massive medical costs if they are hurt or injured while uncovered. Though UAW members on strike are eligible for emergency insurance under the federal COBRA program, transitioning to the new insurance is not easy, and almost impossible to do while also walking a picket line day in and day out. And every day the strike drags on these risks increase.

And this is precisely why GM decided to cut off their employees health insurance. While it’s true that corporations like GM care only about the bottom line; in this case, it’s not really about the money—it’s about retaliation and intimidation. GM believes that it can use this tactic to weaken the workers’ strike fund and to scare their workers sufficiently that they will be less willing to stay on strike for an extended period of time and more likely to return to work sooner and with fewer gains. And GM is not alone in using health insurance as a weapon to keep workers in line. Not only do other employers regularly stop funding health insurance to forestall or undermine strike efforts, but they also often use the threat of increased health care costs or reductions in health benefits as a bargaining chip in contract negotiations. This tactic has made it that much more difficult for unions to win wage gains for employees, since they are forced to spend enormous efforts pushing back against employer demands to pass the increasing cost of health care onto their workers.

Despite the obvious negative effects of employer-provided insurance, many centrist Democrats and even some union leaders have used unions as an excuse to oppose any robust form of national health care, claiming that it would hurt unions. Joe Biden for instance, has argued that union members should not be “forced” to give up their hard-won benefits. “You’ve worked like hell, you gave up wages for it,” Biden said, claiming that most union members were happy with their healthcare and wanted to keep it. This sentiment has been echoed by business union leaders such as AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who has been cool to the idea of plans like Medicare for All precisely because he says it will take away employer-provided health benefits. Meanwhile, SEIU leaders have backed Kamala Harris’s healthcare plan, which would leave private insurers in place and maintain employer-provided health care for at least a decade if not indefinitely. For union bureaucrats like Trumka, who tend to spend more time with politicians than rank-and-file workers, benefits such as high-quality health insurance are just another way to maintain the relative advantage of union membership and thus secure their continued existence.

Such reasoning, however, is incredibly myopic, and issues from a position of weakness. If unions wish to rebuild their power, they cannot ignore the needs and demands of the broader working class who are their natural allies, nor can they continue to allow employers the power to bargain over such a basic human necessity as health care. A system of free, universal public health care would be good for all working people and would allow unions to focus more directly on taking control of their working conditions as well as taking back from capital a greater share of the value their members create.


Facebook Twitter Share

James Dennis Hoff

James Dennis Hoff is a writer, educator, labor activist, and member of the Left Voice editorial board. He teaches at The City University of New York.

Labor Movement

“Grueling Working Conditions and Low Wages”: A Testimonial from a UPS Warehouse Worker

Workers in UPS warehouses are among the most precarious workers in the logistics industry. As the 2023 Teamsters contract negotiations approaches, a UPS warehouse worker speaks out about his working conditions and calls for unity in struggle among UPS drivers and warehouse workers.

Nehuen Latif

November 30, 2022
Twitter’s headquarters in San Francisco. Logo on a grey building.

Workers Built Twitter — They Should Own It, Not Elon Musk

Corporations like Twitter cannot function without the workers who do the daily labor.

Kyle Thibodeau

November 27, 2022

Education Workers Have the Power to Win in Toronto

A rank-and-file educational worker who participated in the historic strike earlier this month in Toronto discusses how fellow workers can fight back against the Doug Ford administration and win their demands.

Martin Reilly

November 20, 2022

48,000 University of California Academic Workers Begin Historic Strike

On November 14, 48,000 academic workers across the University of California system began the largest higher education strike in history. Their fight could inspire higher education workers across the country.

Brian H. Silverstein

November 15, 2022


South African president Cyril Ramaphosa in a suit

“Farmgate” Threatens the Very Foundations of Capitalist Stability in South Africa

South African President Cyril Ramaphosa faces an impeachment vote Tuesday. More than a simple case of corruption, it’s a political crisis of the ruling party and of capitalist stability in the country.

Sam Carliner

December 5, 2022

Understanding the Carnage at Colorado Springs

The heinous violence displayed in Colorado Springs is a stark reminder of the menacing, lethal threat that today’s determined far right continues to pose to trans and queer people, and anyone living outside capitalism’s imposed sexual and gender boundaries.

Keegan O'Brien

December 4, 2022
Mapuche people standing with a flag

The Case of the Mapuche: What Can Trotsky Teach Us about the Fight against National Oppression?

Trotsky’s reflections on the social aspect of permanent revolution have deep implications for building working-class hegemony through solidarity with oppressed peoples.

Juan Valenzuela

December 4, 2022

“We Sold Out the People Who Elected Us”: UC Bargaining Team Member Speaks Out About Union Concessions

Here we publish the testimony of a graduate student worker on strike at the University of California, who is part of the bargaining team for UAW Local 2865. Wednesday night, the bargaining team voted 10-9 to make severe concessions to the university.