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Media Statements

Morton Bahr
President of the Communications Workers of America
National Coalition on Health Care
National Press Club
Washington D.C. – May 19, 2003

I am pleased to be here today on behalf of President Sweeney and the unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO representing 13 million working families. Health care is undoubtedly our nation’s most critical problem after homeland security.

While health care is the top priority for all of our unions, I want to deal more specifically with my own union, Communications Workers of America.

CWA represents 700,000 workers employed in telecommunications, the broadcasting and print media, manufacturing, health care and local and state government.

The AFL-CIO has long endorsed five key principles: universal coverage, comprehensive benefits, affordability for all, equitable financing, and quality care delivery.

Organized labor has worked toward these objectives at the bargaining table, in the legislative halls and in our communities.

But an analysis of current trends clearly indicates that our efforts have fallen far short of our goals.

In fact, health care coverage is shrinking. Last year, 1.4 million Americans lost their coverage. Half of them are workers. Most of the rest are the children and spouses of workers.

Many workers are losing their coverage because it is becoming more expensive.

Compounding the problem is that this trend is taking place within an economy that is struggling to get out of recession — or a depression depending on the industry.

While health care costs surge, corporate profits have been depressed, average wages are flat and unemployment has been rising.

While unemployed workers have the right to COBRA, few have the money to pay the premium.

In the telecommunications industry, employers are dealing with a shrinking market as customers wait to see if the economy recovers before investing in new or updated communications services.

This, coupled with increased competition from startup companies that do not provide any health care benefits, has led to thousands of workers being laid off.

Public sector workers, too, are under the gun as state and local governments contend with record revenue shortfalls.

This scenario is repeated across union and nonunion companies, indicating the depth and breath of this problem. It has resulted in employers looking to save money by either cutting the level of benefits or shifting more of the cost to their workers.

Additionally, the most vulnerable among us, retirees, are also being hit as employers begin to either cost-shift or totally eliminate retiree health care benefits.

To a person living on a fixed pension, any additional health care costs is tantamount to suffering a reduction in pension.

After almost a ten-year absence, the issue of who pays for health care is back at the bargaining table as the most contentious issue unions and companies deal with.

The two-day strike that 15,000 CWA members engaged in last January — when GE unilaterally imposed cost shifting — is illustrative of the problem.

Those workers knew that they could not alter the company’s decision, but wanted to make their feelings known to the management. And, from the national publicity the walkout received, it is clear that the problem is resonating across the country.

In virtually every negotiation CWA has engaged in this year, health care was the major issue.

In current talks with ABC, Avaya and the State of New Jersey, who pays is a key element of the talks. We have every reason to believe that in upcoming talks with Verizon, GE, Delphi and others, this issue will be there.

The record is clear. Workers will fight to protect their health care.

In 1989, for example, 60,000 members of CWA and IBEW struck NYNEX for 17 weeks over the sole issue of cost-shifting of health care. And we prevailed.

Union members know that over the years they have paid for their health care by receiving lower wage increases and they will resist paying more as a result.

What is clear is that no company or union can solve the problem.

But the lack of a national solution will surely guarantee increased labor strife, more strikes and a negative impact on our economy.

That is why it is incredibly important for this coalition to grow and work to create a consensus within the public at large that health care reform is an urgent matter for the Congress to deal with.

The longer we wait, the worse the problem will become.

We are pleased to join with the responsible employers who are here today and others in the coalition who are not here. Reform will take place — if for no other reason than to do nothing will cost more. Our job is to get it done sooner rather than later.

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