Special Report

Taking Care of Big Labor

The union perks hidden inside health care reform.

By 11.2.09

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Labor bosses remain committed to coercive measures that could be used to reinvigorate flagging membership and underfunded benefit plans, despite inaction on Capitol Hill. But the idea now is to secure legislation by way of subterfuge and misdirection.

The National Right to Work Committee (NRTWC) has identified a number of schemes buried within House and Senate versions of the proposed government-run health care program that would open the way to forced unionization.
These obscure provisions have been largely overlooked in the midst of an intense national debate over the merits of a public option. But the "employer mandates" and "cooperative health care associations" that would be used to implement a government-run system includes language that allows for union bureaucrats to take charge of health care decisions for millions of Americans.

Moreover, the expensive mandates that would flow from a new public option will not apply to union-negotiated health packages, providing them with a decisive advantage, the NRTWC points out in a new study. This political favoritism has been performed on the sly because Democrats are reluctant to advance overt paybacks to their union benefactors, even with expanded majorities.

Free market advocacy groups have successfully (and accurately) branded the card check and compulsory arbitration components of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) as being anti-democratic and overly burdensome to business.

Card check would effectively eliminate the use of secret ballots in union organization elections, while binding arbitration would make way for federal arbitrators to impose economically unsound packages on businesses. To the consternation of Democratic strategists, polls show that the public has become attuned to these dangers.

Bob McDonnell, the Republican candidate for governor in Virginia, has invoked EFCA's radioactive elements with great effect in his race. His opponent, who has been heavily funded by organized labor, has understandably avoided the conversation. Virginia is one of 22 "Right to Work" states, where there is little appetite for an expansion of union power.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), EFCA's lead sponsor, has discussed the possibility of a compromise that would involve dropping card check, as a way to placate moderate Senate Democrats. But some labor bosses have already signaled this would be unacceptable. Union leaders operating in concert with congressional allies will no doubt attempt to repackage EFCA, but its trajectory between now and the end of the year looks less than promising.

Small wonder then that the push for health care "reform" has assumed a heightened importance, as it would provide union bosses with new privileges and authority that have escaped media attention and public scrutiny.

Consider the language contained in section 2531 submerged deep within the House version. Here the bill stipulates that any participating health care employer "provides wages and benefits to its nurses that are competitive for its market or that have been collectively bargained with a labor organization."

"This phrase 'competitive for its market' is not defined," said Greg Mourad, the main author of the NRTWC study. "This means the Obama administration will be free to define the phrase using Davis-Bacon standards and this would make it almost impossible for non-union employees to qualify."

The approach is similar to what has been done with apprentice programs in federal construction work, Stefan Gleason, vice-president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, explained.

"This is a scheme that is used to fund union organizations that are supposedly doing job training but are often doing other activities," he said. "The scenario that is set up essentially black-balls non-union contractors from even being eligible to work on federal contracts at all. There is a similar strategy at work here with health care."

Section 2531 also provides for state training partnership programs that include "even more explicit unionization requirements," according to the NRTWC study.

"The state training partnership flows in one direction and it does not have a provision for a non-union employee organization," Mourad said. "It has to be a labor organization."

In the 2008 election cycle, unions spent almost $80 million on independent broadcast advertising, mai,l and advocacy to either elect or defeat candidates for federal office, according to OpenSecrets.org. Federal records also show that labor union political action committees (PACs) contributed over $66 million to federal candidates in 2008, with 92 percent of this total going to Democrats.

There is no question about the role union muscle played in electing pro-labor lawmakers and in taking out the opposition. That's why EFCA is properly viewed within a larger context of legislative paybacks that remain in motion, Katie Packer, executive director of the Workforce Fairness Institute has said.

Under section 164 of the House bill, union bosses who have mismanaged benefits for their own members are poised to receive a $10 billion bailout from U.S. taxpayers in the form of a "reinsurance program" that has been folded into the health care bill. Union health insurance funds only have about 30 cents available to cover each dollar of anticipated claims, according to the Lewin Group and other research firms.

There's more. Sections 123, 124 and 2251 of H.R. 3200 all create new avenues for union control on newly formed committees that administration officials could stack with union appointees.

Meanwhile, the Senate version includes language that could force home health care workers to into unions. California has a set the precedent here by re-classifying these workers as public employees for the purpose of collective bargaining.

"Big labor is guaranteed a place on the various committees, and that's something we see as a dangerous sign," Mourad, the NWRTC analyst, said.

The hard reality for unions is that they have become less relevant in an information-based economy where individual skills are prized. Only 7.6 percent of private sector employees are members of a union, according to Labor Department figures.

But the hard reality for the rest of America is that a handful of union bureaucrats could be in position to dictate health care decisions.

How's that for payback?

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About the Author

Kevin Mooney is an investigative reporter with free market think tanks associated with the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity. He has also written for the Daily Caller, the Washington Times, the Washington Examiner, NetRightDaily.com and NewsBusters.