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Members of the United Auto Workers union protest outside the General Motors Arlington Assembly Plant on September 16, 2019 in Arlington, Texas. (Photo: Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)

Progressives Say GM's Decision to Cut Off Employee Health Insurance 'Yet Another Reason Why We Need Medicare for All'

Under a single-payer system, said one Medicare for All advocate, employers would no longer have "tons of leverage because workers are desperate to keep their benefit."

Jake Johnson

General Motors' decision Tuesday to stop paying healthcare premiums for nearly 50,000 of the company's striking workers offered a powerful case for why Medicare for All is necessary to ensure stable and quality insurance as a right for everyone in the United States.

That was the argument advanced by single-payer supporters in the wake of GM's move, which union leaders and others quickly denounced as a cruel intimidation tactic designed to break the United Auto Workers strike.

"By taking healthcare off the bargaining table, workers can demand and win real gains in wages and pensions."
—Michael Lighty

Sara Nelson, president of the American Association of Flight Attendants, said employer-provided insurance allows corporations to use the threat of healthcare cuts "to hold workers hostage."

"Medicare for All puts power back in our hands," said Nelson.

Labor historian Toni Gilpin echoed Nelson, calling employer-provided healthcare "a cudgel that will be used against workers."

Michael Lighty, a founding fellow at the Sanders Institute think tank and an activist with the Democratic Socialists of America's Medicare for All campaign, told Common Dreams that under a single-payer system, employers would no longer have "tons of leverage because workers are desperate to keep their benefit."

"By taking healthcare off the bargaining table, workers can demand and win real gains in wages and pensions," said Lighty, "and rebuild the solidarity at the heart of labor."

GM's decision came amid fierce healthcare disagreements among 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. Those disputes were on full display Tuesday at an AFL-CIO forum in Philadelphia, where Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Vice President Joe Biden touted their respective healthcare proposals before a crowd of union workers.

Biden, who spoke before GM cut off striking employees' benefits, said his public option plan would allow workers to "keep your health insurance you've bargained for if you like it."

Warren Gunnels, senior adviser to Sanders, took aim at Biden's assertion on Twitter.

"Under Medicare for All, whether you're working, whether you're not working, whether you go from one job to another job, it's right there with you."
—Sen. Bernie Sanders

"Try telling that to UAW workers who just had their healthcare benefits taken away from them by GM," said Gunnels. "Medicare for All is the only way to make sure that no American loses their health insurance ever again and workers will finally receive the higher wages and benefits they need and deserve."

Sanders, who spoke at the AFL-CIO forum shortly after GM's move, said Medicare for All would eliminate corporations' ability to cut off healthcare benefits by guaranteeing comprehensive coverage to everyone in the U.S.

"Here you have the situation where the UAW is now on strike, 49,000 workers. I'm sure that in that 49,000, there are family members who are seriously ill," said Sanders. "Under Medicare for All, whether you're working, whether you're not working, whether you go from one job to another job, it's right there with you."

Splinter's Paul Blest argued Wednesday that GM's decision to stop paying for workers' healthcare premiums just a day after UAW's strike began counters one of the main centrist talking points against Medicare for All.

"Hasn't Joe Biden been touting the fact that unions fought for their healthcare as a reason why Medicare for All is bad?" said Blest. "In one fell swoop, General Motors proved why that line of attack on Medicare for All and its proponents, namely Sen. Bernie Sanders, is complete bullshit."

"Under a single-payer system, in which your healthcare is dependent on the fact that you exist in the United States rather than who you work for," wrote Blest, "there would be no employer healthcare for GM—or any other company—to cut off. And instead of worrying about healthcare, that's one less thing workers everywhere would have to bargain over when entering contract negotiations with their employers."

As Vox's Tara Golshan noted, GM's move is far from unusual for corporate America.

"Union contract negotiations break down all the time," wrote Golshan. "And union leaders are quick to point out that healthcare, which always plays a major role in union contract negotiations, is a major sticking point. Companies use healthcare as leverage to negotiate down wage increases and other benefits. That's why some of the biggest unions in the country support Medicare for All—or at least moving in that direction."

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