By Joe Maniscalco

February 18, 2024  Work-Bites


Former New York City schoolteachers instrumental in beating back the ongoing campaign to push 250,000 municipal retirees into a profit-driven Medicare Advantage health insurance program have launched a bold new campaign to seize control of the UFT’s Retired Teachers Chapter — and put a real check on entrenched union president Michael Mulgrew’s power in the process.

“When we win, we will be higher up on a level where we will actually be able to have more influence,” Retiree Advocate/UFT member Gloria Brandman told Work-Bites outside United Federation of Teachers headquarters at 52 Broadway on Feb. 16. “We will be in this building. We will be able to talk more to these people that will be there. They will still have power…[but] we get a lot of support from other unions that are working with us…and if we were able to make such a great difference without having any power…imagine if we do actually have a little bit.”

Members of Retiree Advocates/UFT have spent nearly three years, along with the New York City Organization of Public Service Retirees, and other retiree groups, helping to successfully block Mulgrew, the other heads of Municipal Labor Committee [MLC], and now Mayor Eric Adams — from stripping firefighters, police officers, school teachers, and other municipal workers of their traditional Medicare coverage and forcing them into a profit-driven Medicare Advantage plan.

“We cannot afford to have a union president…a union boss…who works for the city instead of us. He needs to go. And Tom Murphy — the stooge who runs the RTC chapter — he needs to go, too. We’re gonna kick ‘em all out,” Retiree Advocate/UFT member Arthur Goldstein declared on Friday.

The UFT’s Retired Teachers Chapter [RTC] consists of some 70,000 members living in states throughout the country and Puerto Rico. Tom Murphy is the current Chapter Leader.

Retiree Advocate/UFT is running a slate of 10 officers and 300 delegates, which Brandman vows will “all be working together as a team.” The group garnered 30 percent of the vote during the last election cycle — and is confident they can win control of the UFT’s Retired Teachers Chapter later this spring — buoyed by their heroic fight against Medicare Advantage in NYC.

“Traditional Medicare benefits have been put up for sale by the Mayor’s Office, insurance companies, and current UFT leadership,” Retiree Advocate/UFT Chapter Leader candidate Bennett Fischer said. “This needs to change. Our leadership needs to change.”

The City of New York’s ongoing love affair with Medicare Advantage mirrors others places around the country where the private health insurance industry has managed to sell local governments on cutting health care costs by reneging on their promise to pick up the 20 percent of out-of-pocket costs traditional Medicare was never designed to cover — and “transition” to a profit-driven Medicare Advantage plan.

What the City of New York and other local governments don’t understand — or simply don’t care about — Medicare Advantage opponents insist — are the well-documented delays and denials of care, and restricted access to physicians that come with those profit-driven health insurance plans.

And that’s to say nothing of the existential threat further privatization poses to traditional Medicare itself.

Cancer Survivor and Retiree Advocate/UFT member Sheila Zukowsky said she celebrated the day she turned 65 because it meant she could finally start claiming her traditional Medicare benefits.

“I didn’t like turning 65 — but I could finally go to the hospital that was around the corner from my house where everybody took my healthcare,” Zukowsky said. “There was no longer a problem — I got great treatment and I’m here to today. There’s no way they’re gonna take away our Medicare. No matter what they do — we’re gonna fight like hell against them.”

The private health insurance industry’s hard sell — with it promises of reduced up front costs, dental coverage, gym memberships and the like —  has resulted in more than half of all Medicare eligible recipients in the country now being enrolled in a profit-driven Medicare Advantage plan.

Many of those recipients, however, now regret being taken in by the Medicare Advantage sales pitch — and feel trapped.

Even Mayor Adams jeered Medicare Advantage as a “bait and switch” before winning election and doing an abrupt about-face after taking office.

A great many Medicare eligible recipients also do not even realize that a privatized, profit-driven Medicare Advantage plan is not Medicare — something that privatization advocates are loath to admit.

The Save Medicare Act, reintroduced in the House last year, seeks to prohibit giant insurance companies from advertising their profit-driven plans as “Medicare.”

“Michael Mulgrew keeps saying Medicare Advantage is just Medicare Part C — that’s an absolute lie,” Retiree Advocate/UFT member Norm Scott said on Friday. “We know the difference. I’ve been on Medicare for 14 years — I love it. I’ve had no problems.”

Retiree Advocate/UFT member Sarah Shapiro said, “It’s difficult when you know the city is fighting against you,” but that “it’s really difficult when you know the people in our union leadership are fighting against the rank & file — and the retirees.”

Fellow Retiree Advocate/UFT member Bobby Greenberg’s work on national labor campaigns with the American Federation of Teachers goes back a half century. What’s needed, and what Retiree Advocate/UFT promises, he said is a return to authentic union culture centered on empowering the membership

“[Mulgrew] said this is the best plan we can get — he still  says that. That plan died — it was killed by us,” Greenberg said. “We’re winning because the guns have shifted from us — to the working teachers. Now, it’s their healthcare being attacked…what we need is a different culture. We need a culture that welcomes the members.”

Retiree Advocate/UFT Jonathan Halabi said the Retired Teachers Chapter had two critical jobs to do under Mulgrew and Murphy’s watch: protect pensions and healthcare. But they have failed at both.

“Medicare Advantage, Aetna, Alliance — that’s not protecting our healthcare,” Halal said. “That’s Mulgrew, Murphy, Mayor Adams, and the MLC endangering our healthcare…who knows what they have in store four our pensions? Reitrees will vote for the team that will protect our healthcare and our pensions.”