Op-Ed: Once the Most Secure, Public Sector Workers are Now Being Left Out To Dry

New York City has become a vanguard of the kind of collaboration between government and union leaders that is driving labor conditions downward.

Steph Kranes, Juliet Emerson-Colvin, John Antush & Anne Kochman Apr 10, 2023

Retired city workers are outraged. Mayor Adams has finalized a shift that will move 250,000 retirees to a privately-run Medicare Advantage health plan that will save the city $600 million, but will compromise the health of many. 

This plan is designed to make money for shareholders, and as such, offers more limited choices of doctors and hospitals, has higher administrative and out-of-pocket expenses, requires restrictive pre-approvals, and has been found to deny needed care. Few fixed-income City retirees can afford this plan

It is unlikely that litigation will result in permanent protection against the increasing erosion of quality health care. So how should we, active city employees, respond? 

While retirees had organized mass protests against them, some active workers expressed relief that leaders of the largest unions — the United Federation of Teachers and DC 37 —  which represents a variety of municipal employees — pushed through these changes. Perhaps if the City saves on retiree health care, they reasoned, those still working will get better raises in upcoming contracts. Some active employees opposed the plan out of sympathy: What a shame it is that retirees are being robbed of the quality health care they had earned. 

Benefits and job security have lulled us city employees into a dangerous complacency.

Others saw the move for what it was — an attack on themselves and their future — and joined the retirees who organized to stop it. Retirees delivered thousands of letters to Mayor Adams urging him to save the City money in other ways, such as by apportioning funds from the budget surplus, instead of sacrificing the health of workers who have dedicated their careers to serving New York. 

Predictably, savings from the switch to private health care won’t be spent on adequate raises for city workers. The DC 37 contract negotiations show that they and other active employees will be receiving something like a 3% annual adjustment, retroactively covering the period since our contracts’ lapsed. That might barely cover half of the surging rate of inflation we’ve faced over the past two years. Worse, union leaders knew members have been struggling with the rising cost of living and weaponized their fears to garner enough support for the health-care measure. Now we’ve had our expected real pay stolen, along with our retiree health plan. 

Our benefits and job security have lulled us city employees into a dangerous complacency, based on the illusion that we are in a fundamentally secure situation compared to other workers. In reality, retirees and active employees alike are being treated as disposable, which has been a recurring threat:  Even during the pandemic, the City threatened to lay off 22,000 city workers which would have had a disastrous impact on the provision of essential services.

The City is also moving to cut costs on 300,000 active workers’ health benefits by replacing the main health-insurance plan, GHI EmblemHealth, which we receive with no monthly premium, with a new plan. These changes have been developing with the support of major union leaders in the Municipal Labor Committee. The MLC claims this switch can be done with no increase in costs to workers and no loss of quality in our plan, a doubtful outcome. If the overhaul of retirees’ health care was any lesson, city employees should not sit back and hope our union leaders will fight for our interests. 

Today’s loss of quality health plans and lack of real salary raises mark a steep slide downward for workers in all sectors that has been gathering momentum for decades. New York City, hailed as the most progressive metropolis in the country, has become the epicenter of such attacks on workers and a vanguard of the kind of collaboration between government and union leaders that is driving labor conditions downward. For example, it is one of the few cities in the United States where home attendants, namely women of color and immigrants, are forced to do inhumane 24-hour shifts and also suffer wage theft of up to half of their deserved pay. 

One of the many retired city workers that rallied at New York City Hall on March 31 in protest of being put on Medicare Advantage holds a sign that reads, “Our lives are not for profit.” Sue Brisk

Home attendants are expected to care for elderly, ill or disabled individuals around the clock while deprived of sleep, causing workers to incur critical injury, insomnia and illness, and the breakdown of their families as all their time is spent at work, while earning less than the state’s minimum wage so that homecare agencies and insurance companies can make maximum profits. For years, home attendants have asked the leader of the largest union representing health care workers, 1199 SEIU, to stand with them against the abusive practice of the 24-hour workday. Not only has he not opposed this practice but has been instrumental in maintaining this brutal system of 24-hour shifts and wage theft by blaming Medicaid shortfalls and undermining workers’ organizing efforts to end the abuse. 

A century and a half since the U.S. labor movement fought for the eight-hour workday, the union is dragging us backwards to a bottomless standard while pretending to champion the rights of working people. How will other unions view the normalizing of the 24-hour workday?

When there is no economic floor to stand on, workers across trades and sectors can expect to face a cascade effect in which the disposable treatment of the most vulnerable classes of workers — immigrants, people of color and lower-income women — is applied to seemingly more protected groups of workers. After all, proposals for a health-care overhaul targeting active city employees are developing as the MLC approves the overhaul for ostensibly more vulnerable retirees. And these attacks are not just on public-sector workers, but on all workers, as the public sector has long been an influential standard bearer for decent benefit packages and therefore stands to influence employees in the private sector. 

If the overhaul of retirees’ health care was any lesson, city employees should not sit back and hope our union leaders will fight for our interests. 

Instead of organizing to fight back, labor leaders are brokering the City’s austerity agenda and profit motive of insurance giants. We need to challenge our unions to defend retirees’ and current workers’ shared interests, to stop driving down conditions for everyone and instead heed their members’ calls for a humane and just standard of labor rights that we all can stand on. 

Working people can also take initiative and unite to challenge the exploitation we face. Home attendants are leading that fight. They are demanding the passage of the No More 24 Act, which would implement split shifts of 12 hours, effectively illegalizing modern-day slavery in New York City. The bill has gained bipartisan support in the City Council, and on April 12, hundreds of New Yorkers are scheduled to call on Speaker Adrienne Adams to bring the bill to a vote. This bill can set a precedent for the treatment workers are willing to accept, and the kind of standard unions are expected to uphold. 

We should learn from the home attendants who, bereft of their health, livelihoods and time, have nothing left to lose. They have united with workers of other trades to stop the super-exploitation of the 24-hour workday and restore their stolen wages. We should join with them and with workers across New York to demand all that is rightfully ours as working people young and old — our health care, our wages, and control over our time and lives. 

Join the rally to oppose the change to retirees’ health care on April 11 at noon, and to bring the No More 24 bill to a vote on April 12 at noon both at City Hall. RSVP no more 24:

Steph Kranes, Juliet Emerson-Colvin (active city employees) John Antush (UFT member); Anne Kochman (DC37 retiree), all members of the Civil Service Committee of the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops.

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