By Joe Maniscalco

November 14, 2023  Work-Bites


“You know, we have to deal with these insurance companies. We just have no choice in that because that’s the world.” — CWA Local 1180 President Gloria Middleton.

Underneath the fight municipal retirees are waging in New York City and other places around the country to save their traditional Medicare benefits from the onslaught of privatized Medicare Advantage plans lies a systemic defect in today’s labor movement that if not finally corrected guarantees some harder times ahead — for retirees and active workers alike.

It’s a philosophical and ideological deformity that has long plagued the working class and is made manifest in lots of the performative job actions, carefully-controlled strikes and anemic contracts being paraded around and passed off as “historic” achievements.

CWA Local 1180 President Gloria Middleton — a Municipal Labor Committee [MLC] trustee in New York — could not have expressed this disastrous self-defeating kind of orientation any better then when laying out the rationale for attempting to push Medicare Advantage and privatization onto municipal retirees currently covered by traditional Medicare.

Before getting into it with Work-Bites, Middleton made a point to stress her local’s “progressive” stance and support for single payer, universal healthcare “like what they have in Canada, like what they have in Europe, like what they have in many countries that are advanced.”

“If the federal government would ever come up with universal health care,” Middleton continued, “we will be first on board with that. But until the federal government does something like that — that’s tangible, that’s something that can be used across the nation — you know, we have to deal with these insurance companies. We just have no choice in that because that’s the world.”

Okay, let’s all let that sink in a minute.

We have to deal with these insurance companies. We have no choice in that because that’s the world.

Now, let’s all insert our favorite labor leader from history here and imagine them saying:

“Yep…as soon as the government comes up with an eight hour work day — we will be the first on board!”

You betcha…as soon as the government gives us the weekend — we will be the first on board!”

Sadly, the mindset — the ideology — that Middleton expresses is common on the labor beat today. You run into it a lot covering the crisis in health care, sure — but you also encounter it in regards to a myriad of other labor struggles throughout NYC and across the nation. Middleton is no outlier.

She expresses an ideology scores of other union leaders like her have adopted — either purposefully or not — which ignores any understanding or acknowledgement of labor’s historic role as the most potent force for transformational change working people in this country have ever had — and the role labor leaders have had as the chief agents of that change.

“It’s disheartening because labor leaders of the past would never have done this — and they would never have come up with that excuse,” Marianne Pizzitola, retired first responder and head of the New York City Organization of Public Service Retirees says.

New York City municipal retirees fighting to retain their traditional Medicare coverage are unambiguous about what’s happening to them. Ask them and they’ll tell you pointblank: the heads of the MLC — their own union leaders — are selling them out.

Anita Clinton worked for NYC Transit for nearly 30 years and isn’t about to give labor leaders a pass. She’s part of group of TWU Local 100 retirees who are also attempting to put the brakes on the Medicare Advantage push.

“I don’t understand why so many union leaders have accepted this,” she says. “Chipping away Medicare is the privatization of Medicare. It’s a disrespect to the members who work long and hard. Transit jobs in and of themselves are very dangerous. People who work in the tunnels are breathing steel dust every day, you got the third rail — I mean, there’s all kinds of dangerous situations out there.”

Chris Hedges broke down the larger problem beautifully at the New York City launch of Seattle City Council Member Kshama Sawant’s Workers Strike Back campaign back in June when he characterized the challenge facing working class people today as both “confronting a system gamed against us through the two-party duopoly” — and — “confronting a union leadership that have become junior partners in the capitalist system.”

Both Democrats and Republicans are driving workers into a “system of virtual serfdom,” Hedges said and things are only going to get worse “until we step outside the system and pit organized power against power.”

Retired municipal employees, many of them in their 70s and 80s contending with life-threatening diseases, are some of the least equipped to lead that fight — but that’s just what they’re doing.

“A lot of times, many illnesses or sickness might not manifest themselves until much later on,” Clinton adds. “And that’s when we need health care the most — and that’s when they’re giving us the knife in the back.”

Kay Tillow is a single payer advocate from Kentucky who has spent the past two decades of her life attempting to rally stultified union leaders into action.

“I think that part of the problem is just falling behind whatever the National Democratic Party says is its position,” Tillow says. “And part of the problem is the people in our own movement who kind of relented and say, well…okay, it’s not possible now…we should work on something else.”

For further context, see some of the scathing criticism leveled at the UAW leadership immediately following what should have been a truly transformative national strike against “The Big Three.” A 25-percent raise in base pay over four and a half years might sound okay when you really need the money, but that’s only until you realize how much inflation has torpedoed the value of workers’ wages. It also falls far short of the 40-percent raises UAW President Shawn Fain was demanding.

And we shall see what Fran Drescher and the gang over at SAG-AFTRA really end up with when all is said and done. But if lots of lofty talk about the “most progressive AI protections ever written” doesn’t set off alarm bells in your head it should — because what are we talking about here: no soul-stealing AI until after 2028 — and then only restricted to the first twenty-five feature film credits!?!

Tillow is still a lot more charitable than others in the labor movement who have grown fed up with the supine stance rank and file workers are getting from too many union heads enjoying six-figure salaries. Tillow acknowledges rising costs are making it harder and harder to maintain health care benefits and “that’s the pressure that pushes people to find the solution.”

“But,” Tillow continues, “they’ve chosen the wrong solution. They’ve chosen one that takes us backward and will hurt their future retirees as well — and it’s gonna destroy Medicare in the meantime.”

Looks like it’s just never a good idea to give our collective power away to anyone.