N.C. workers push Medicare for All, union rights

Durham, N.C.

On the day before the March 3 “Super Tuesday” 2020 primary elections, hundreds of city and state workers across North Carolina and the South demanded that their employers and state and congressional candidates support expansion of union rights and the Medicare for All Act of 2019 (H.R. 1384). 

Charlotte, N.C., workers rally. Credit: UE 150.

Adding to the numbers of working people who see Medicare for All as the only way to comprehensively insure themselves and their families and contain skyrocketing health care costs, the North Carolina Public Service Workers Union, United Electrical Workers (UE) Local 150 and the Southern Workers Assembly hosted “pickets for health.” These were a continuation of their campaign at workplaces across the state for Medicare for All, with actions in six cities: Charlotte, Greensboro, Durham, Raleigh, Goldsboro and Rocky Mount.

Their campaign is to pressure city councils to pass a resolution endorsing H.R. 1384 now before Congress. New council resolutions were introduced in Charlotte, Goldsboro, Whitakers and Raleigh. The city of Durham and other local governments across the South have already passed resolutions calling for the bill’s passage. 

Saving lives and money

Responding to a frequently asked question about funding for the bill, UE Local 150 President Bryce Carter stated that “a new study from Yale University found that 68,000 lives and $450 billion would be saved under Medicare for All per year. We are already paying for it. We have the most expensive health care system in the world.” 

According to public records acquired by the UE, many employers also stand to save money from the bill, which would primarily drive down wasteful administrative costs from health insurance corporations and lower pharmaceutical and health care expenses under a universal, single-payer system where the government could bargain down prices. 

In Charlotte, savings to the city’s contribution to health care premiums under Medicare for All would add up to more than $10 million annually. Lower premiums under Medicare for All would reduce workers’ costs by an estimated $3,734,000 a year. In Raleigh, taxpayers would likely save $22 million. The city of Greensboro would save an estimated $14.8 million annually.

“City workers need immediate relief from high premiums they currently pay, citing the premium for basic family coverage of $434.50 per month. That amounts to about 20 percent of take-home pay for workers starting out. Let’s join the rest of the industrial world and support a universal health care program, which for us is Medicare for All,” stated Dominic Harris, a Water Department worker and president of Charlotte City Workers Union.

In mid-February, a coalition of ten organizations, including the NAACP, Action N.C., Healthcare Justice N.C., National Nurses United, N.C. Public Service Workers Union-UE Local 150 and the Southern Workers Assembly signed on to a letter calling on Charlotte City Council to lower health care costs for its employees and pass a resolution in support of Medicare for All. This was the coalition’s first action.

Flagrant denial of union rights affects health care

North Carolina public workers are denied the right to bargain collectively. Workers in Charlotte, for example, cannot negotiate even incremental improvements in their health care coverage, making the protection of health for them and their families all the more difficult. 

City workers in Greensboro and Durham are currently waging a campaign to improve their cities’ grievance procedures. On the day of the actions, Durham City Workers Union activist Kellie McLean, from the Department of Parks and Recreation, was fired. 

McLean had been wrongfully placed on a Corrective Action Plan in the summer of 2019 and given three months to make improvements. When the three months were over, management delayed its response and then decided to keep her on the CAP. She wrote an 88-page rebuttal letter, which was ignored by management and simply placed in her file. Then in December, when she was under review after her second CAP, she wrote a 105-page rebuttal. 

After two months of stalling, DPR Director Rhonda Parker, who has since resigned due to pressure from the union’s campaign, wrote back in late February that she was upholding management’s decision. This then led to McLean’s termination. 

Her case highlights many of the flaws in the current grievance procedure, including not being able to remove false and misleading information from one’s personnel file, not having a co-worker union steward to speak up with you at all steps of the grievance procedure, not being able to file formal grievances about management abuse and not having an unbiased panel that makes final decisions rather than the City Manager. 

“Myself, as well as dozens of other Parks and Rec workers, have been forced to quit because of the hostile working conditions in the School Age Care program,” stated DeMario Jennette, former DPR employee. “Nearly the entire program staff has quit in the last year. This program has a long list of staff [who] were very enthusiastic about the program when they were hired, but soon became demoralized by the micromanagement and unprincipled and overly harsh criticisms and unwarranted discipline from management.” 

“The city’s current evaluation system ‘EPEP’ allows for supervisors to overscrutinize employees and perform so-called ‘coachings’ daily on every little thing they felt the worker did wrong. Even if they are false, we have no recourse to have them removed from our files, and [they] can impact our merit pay and even lead to unjust discipline and terminations,” stated John Morris, maintenance technician in the Water Management Department and member of UE Local 150. “We need a grievance procedure that holds management accountable on all levels.”

Health care is a right!

State mental health workers from Cherry Hospital and O’Berry Center hosted an action at the Goldsboro City Hall, with support from local NAACP activists, City Council Member Antonio Williams and State Representative Raymond Smith, who both spoke in favor of expanded and improved Medicare for All. 

“State employees and state taxpayers are being gouged by insurance companies, like Blue Cross Blue Shield, collecting enormous premiums. Every year in recent memory, the costs of our premiums and deductibles have been going up. Family plans now cost us over $700 per month. Under a Medicare for All system, hundreds of millions will come back to N.C. taxpayers and more back into the wallets and purses of state workers. Let’s join the rest of the industrial world and support a universal health care program, which for us is Medicare for All,” said President William Young of UE Local 150 union at Cherry Hospital, Food and Nutritional Services.

In the buildup to the rally, union leaders were shocked when they received a phone call from a union member at Central Regional Hospital who had pulled his shoulder while working with a patient. He was out of work and had filed for workers compensation. However, as a state employee who is assumed to have decent benefits, he is forced to pay 100 percent of his health care premiums. 

Outside of Rocky Mount, in the town of Whitakers, workers at the Cummins Diesel Engine plant circulated fliers at shift change in support of Medicare for All and hosted a rally at the Bloomer Hill Community Center. They plan to introduce a resolution in support of Medicare for All to the Whitakers Town Council. 

Recent Commonwealth Fund data show that in successive years one in three U.S. residents with insurance foregoes a doctor visit or filling a prescription because the person cannot afford it. Forty-two percent with a first-time cancer diagnosis spend all their savings within two years. Premiums continue to go up well beyond inflation. That’s underinsurance at expensive rates.

‘Health care, not warfare’

Raleigh, N.C., workers rally for health care, union rights, March 2. Credit: UE 150.

“We need health care, not warfare,” chanted graduate workers from the University of North Carolina and North Carolina State University, alongside city workers in front of Raleigh City Hall. Graduate workers face their own health challenges working at state universities while not receiving any dental or vision care. Many forego cleanings, leading to deteriorating teeth. 

“The current health care system does not support workers. As UNC graduate workers, we are not given dental insurance and are restricted from many services that are considered essential for basic health care. This is unacceptable. Medicare for All would provide access to health care including vision and dental,” stated Miranda Elston, graduate employee at UNC Chapel Hill and member of UE 150. 

The Southern Workers Assembly and UE Local 150 plan to continue  workplace organizing to win passage of H.R. 1384. 

A popular chant of the campaign is: “We don’t want your stupid wall, we want Medicare for All.”

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