AFL-CIO Turns Against Obamacare

Published October 11, 2013

The nation’s largest union federation has turned against President Obama’s health care law, calling for it to be reformed or repealed.

At their quadrennial convention in Los Angeles in September, AFL-CIO union members passed a resolution complaining Obama’s law will drive up costs of union-sponsored health plans to the point members and employers will abandon them entirely.

Terry O’Sullivan, president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, said he would prefer the law be fixed, and if not, it should be repealed.

“If the Affordable Care Act is not fixed and it destroys the health and welfare funds that we have fought for and stand for, then I believe it needs to be repealed,” O’Sullivan said. “We don’t want it to be repealed. We want it to be fixed, fixed, fixed.”

Losing What They’ve Got

In advance of the AFL-CIO resolution, the Obama administration tried to urge union leaders not to criticize the law. U.S. Labor Secretary Tom Perez and Obama Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett assured union leaders the administration is working to find solutions. But the Obama administration declined to fix a specific aspect criticized by the resolution, announcing after the convention ended that it would ignore union calls to deem multi-employer union-negotiated plans eligible for taxpayer subsidies.

Not all AFL-CIO members agreed with the resolution. The head of the union’s chapter in New Mexico still argues the law could work.

“What we don’t want to see is for us to go backwards,” Jon Hendry, the president of the New Mexico Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO said. “We don’t want it to be implemented in such a way that we lose what we’ve got. That was not the intention of the ACA.”

“They’re going to have to change it,” Hendry said. “I haven’t heard from anyone who thinks this [implementation] is moving smoothly.… The rollout has been problematic.”

Learning to Live With It

Unions have been among President Obama’s biggest supporters and embraced the ACA when it was signed. But they have since soured on it, in part because of the Obama administration’s delay of the employer mandate to provide insurance coverage. Unions complain the act as written will encourage employers to hire fewer union workers or ditch their health plans altogether, forcing union members to seek lower quality coverage in the new health exchanges offered by states.

But according to Hendry, unions will just have to figure out how to deal with the law’s consequences.

“We’re not going to blow it up because we don’t like some parts of it,” Hendry said. “It’s a damn lot better than what we had before.… If it doesn’t get worked out, then less companies will offer insurance and more people will go on Medicare and Medicaid, which is a single-payer system, which I think is a great system.”

“We’ve got to figure it out, to implement this thing,” Hendry said. “We’ve got to live with what we’ve got.”