Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Alphabet Soup: The AFL-CIO and the ACA

By John LempPublished September 30, 2013

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The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) passed in March 2010 with the support of the Democratic Party, interest groups, progressive think tanks and coalitions, and the organized labor movement. Now, skepticism and cynicism prompted members of the AFL-CIO to demand changes to Obamacare, labeling several of the act's provisions as "highly disruptive" to union healthcare plans.
By John Lemp, Published 9/30/2013

The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA) passed in March 2010 with the support of the Democratic Party, interest groups, progressive think tanks and coalitions, and the organized labor movement.  Now, three and a half years later, the AFL-CIO (American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations) is beginning to distance itself from supporting the nationwide healthcare law, and in some cases union officials have been quite critical of several mandates within the legislation.  AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has voiced major concerns in recent weeks, causing other union officials and rank-and-file employees to become skeptical about the ACA.  This skepticism and cynicism prompted members of the AFL-CIO to demand changes to Obamacare, labeling several of the act's provisions as "highly disruptive" to union healthcare plans. 

            Economists working for the organized labor movement have extensively studied the U.S. healthcare system in the years since the passage of the ACA, primarily to understand how unionized workplaces and employers will be affected by the legislation.  These studies were presented to both local and national union officials in order for the organized labor movement to unite either in support of or against the ACA.  While the organized labor movement is strongly in favor of reforming the current American healthcare system, union members and officials are no longer highly supportive of the reforms that would take place with the implementation of Obamacare. 

            A resolution passed by the AFL-CIO earlier this month outlined many of the organized labor movement's concerns regarding the ACA.  The resolution and preceding meetings were spurred in part by several local unions affiliated with the AFL-CIO decertifying their AFL-CIO status because of disagreements over Obamacare on both ideological and practical levels.  The AFL-CIO, being the gold standard and preeminent power of the organized labor movement, recognized that a united version of organized labor was by far better than one with schisms over such a passionate issue. 

            One major concern expressed by leading figures in the organized labor movement considers the notion that certain unionized employees may lose health coverage for themselves and their families when the ACA is implemented.  This is due largely to the infrastructure of Taft-Hartley healthcare plans in place in many unions.  These plans provide coverage to employees represented by a given union, an example being the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, who are represented within various firms such as ConEdison, Qualcomm, Verizon, etc.  These plans provide standardized healthcare coverage across multiple employers so as to protect unionized employees from inter-firm competition.  For example, if ConEdison did not offer employer contributions to employee healthcare plans, why would Qualcomm or Verizon not do the same in order to cut costs and establish themselves as a more competitive business?  These Taft-Hartley plans constitute a sense of uniformity for workers represented by a certain union, regardless of the employer.  A fear voiced by the organized labor movement is that the Affordable Care Act would lead to more firm-specific plans, which likely would not provide as strong of healthcare coverage as the current system. 

            Another major concern is that Obamacare in its current form incentivizes employers to hire more part-time workers instead of full-time workers, since in many instances, part-time employees are not eligible for employer-provided benefits packages.  The traditional 40-hour workweek would be jeopardized, according to AFL-CIO higher-ups, a system that the organized labor movement fought for such a long time before its implementation.  A sharp decrease in the number of hours an employee works per week not only eliminates their ability to receive healthcare coverage and other benefits, but obviously also reduces the purchasing power an employee has to buy a private healthcare plan, due to the reduction in wages. 

            AFL-CIO officials, other leaders of the organized labor movement, and rank-and-file employees themselves are working together in order to present new provisions to the ACA that would better serve the interests of the American people.  It has always been the goal of the organized labor movement to take a lead role in political, economic, and social reforms in the United States.  With the implementation of the ACA not too far off the horizon, organized labor is beginning to more vocally express their opinions regarding Obamacare and the nation's current healthcare system.  This voice is one that needs to be heard--not only because of the valid concerns that they address and bring to the table, but also because of their commitment to the pursuit of social justice and reformation.