UFT Healthcare: What will we give back next?

Last week, New York’s public sector stirred anxiously about a supposed arbitration ‘decision‘ that would end traditional Medicare as we know it. Municipal retirees, it was said, should be thrown onto an Aetna-managed Medicare Advantage plan without any option to keep Seniorcare (unless the City Council voted to amend city code 12-126). Jonathan Halabi discovered some peculiar word choices in the ‘arbitration’ report that called into question how binding it really was. Rather, as Halabi elaborated in a follow-up piece, and as the NYC Organization of Public Sector Retirees discussed in their own statement, Martin Scheinman had actually only issued a mere recommendation. If there was any doubt about this conclusion, today members of City Council, such as former Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, indicated that indeed, there was no binding arbitration decision about Medicare Advantage.

So where does this leave us? At a minimum, the argument for collusion between key union leaders and the City is frankly more realistic than the alternative. A small group of bureaucrats bargained away our healthcare behind closed doors, didn’t succeed, and have likely been working together to finish what they started. Unfortunately, the fact that the City, Mulgrew, and Scheinman already all agree with each other, complicates things. Many left-opposition activists have been excited about the possibility that Scheinman’s lack of authority here means there’s hope yet for traditional Medicare. Again, perhaps it’s the malcontent in me, but I remain pessimistic. There’s no need for an arbitrator when all sides with formal power agree. Scheinman doesn’t need to ram through Medicare Advantage if that’s what both the MLC and the City already want. And if there’s any question on where Mulgrew stands, just look at his latest statement, dated three days from today:

“The city and the Municipal Labor Committee (MLC) have put out a request for proposals to find a health insurance provider that can offer benefits that are as good or better than the current GHI CBP plan for in-service members but at less cost. Meanwhile, we are in the midst of negotiating a new premium-free health care plan for all Medicare-eligible city retirees. We see a possible opportunity to use the Medicare Advantage system to create a new plan for retirees that would have the strength and quality our retirees deserve while allowing us to tap into $600 million annually in federal subsidies.”

This is literally dated in the future, almost a full week after Scheinman’s ‘decision.’ Note that number ‘$600 million,’ the same figure as the debt to which Mulgrew committed us without our informed consent in the 2018 contract. That debt is the big story here. Whether or not Scheinman can actually rule on how we pay it back, the City has made it clear that if we don’t get them their money, things aren’t going to end well. For one thing, in that scenario, city unions like the UFT can expect not to get new contracts with fair raises. And that’s just the beginning. The portended end of GHI-CBP and its replacement with something at “less cost” does not bode well. It implies that $600 million in savings and the end of traditional Medicare is just the start – that we’re beginning our long descent down a never-ending stairwell of healthcare givebacks. And, as a Tier 6 member with almost 30 more years on the table before I can retire with a crap pension at 63, the idea of committing to worse healthcare just makes me ask: what will we give back next?

We aren’t going to win on healthcare, pension, pay, workday, or anything else, unless we completely rethink our union’s strategy. UFT leadership has been managing decline for a long time now. Beyond a few scattered and mostly superficial victories here and there, we haven’t had real gains in years. In net terms, teachers and other members have been losing. In large part, that’s because we allow the City and the State to take from us when budgets get tough. Formally, our union isn’t fighting back on healthcare. Retirees have only held onto traditional Medicare because of their own quasi-wildcat actions. But, especially for those of us in Tier 6, those grassroots victories will be short-lived unless we solve the root of the problem: we constantly allow our union to let the City and State dispossess us of real income, benefits, and time. If the City/State can’t pay us our value, shouldn’t we demand that they find the money another way? That’s why the UFC-elected High School Executive Board proposed a stock transfer tax to fund our healthcare back in November. Unity Caucus voted that resolution down, and have opted instead for backroom deals with more givebacks. If we keep accepting less, how little will we have in ten years? Thirty years? Fifty years?

Enough is enough. The only real solution we have is to finally stand up and fight for more.


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