A United Working Class is Good for Your Health

The coronavirus crisis is having a dramatic effect on the consciousness of millions of workers, not least in the healthcare sector. Already before the pandemic there was a growing mood of discontent over working conditions, low wages, healthcare costs, etc. The virus only served as a powerful catalyst in the context of rising labor militancy of workers across the US. The following article provides a Marxist account of a healthcare union struggle that took place in the Twin Cities before the COVID-19 outbreak.

SEIU workers at HealthPartners clinics in the Twin City area voted to go on a seven-day strike starting February 19. A resounding 95% of 1,800 workers voted in favor, which includes midwives, RN’s, dental hygienists, lab techs, and more. They were fighting steep increases in the cost of their healthcare plans, as well as a wage increase.

Then, on February 17, the union struck a deal with management for a 2.5% annual wage increase for the next three years, and no increases in their copays until 2021. The hurried agreement shows that the money to grant concessions was there all along, but management was only forced to back down when faced with the overwhelming support for a strike.

For now, HealthPartners management is breathing a sigh of relief at successfully avoiding the seven-day slash to their profits, but they have only delayed the inevitable. As the crisis of capitalism continues to squeeze the working class, the pressure builds until they have once again had enough. But next time will be different since the workers have come out of this experience with increased unity, confidence, and class consciousness.

Karl Marx
Marx recognized that the hard-won gains of workers are constantly threatened in capitalist society.

While this represents a modest win for these workers, their struggle should be viewed in the bigger picture: as long as healthcare is based on the market, it will continue to function as a commodity, utilized primarily to turn a profit rather than benefit healthcare workers or their patients—and non-profit providers like HealthPartners are no exception. Furthermore, any concessions the workers win can later be taken away at the whim of the market. As Karl Marx says in Value, Price and Profit, “They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction.” We are at the tail end of the longest boom in history, but the vast majority of workers have not felt any benefits because the record profits were based on the unpaid labor of the working class. This was instinctively felt by the workers when HealthPartners, which reported $7 billion in revenue last year, offered a meager 2% increase in wages to some of the workers—and just 1.5% to others! And once inflation is factored in, this effectively represents a pay cut. In a metro area with rapidly rising housing costs, one popular sign at the informational pickets building broader support for the strike read: “2% won’t pay the rent.”

Another key issue was healthcare. Many of the workers said they accepted the consistently lower wages HealthPartners offers, compared to other clinics in the area, because of its health plan, which offered lower copays and premiums. But what the bosses give with the left hand, they take away with the right. When management tried to increase employee contributions—in many cases, more than doubling the monthly premiums while the CEO received a 56% raise—the workers decided to fight back.

Healthcare has been an increasingly important issue for millions of Americans for many years. The health insurance industry extracts exorbitant profits from premiums and copays through plans offered through employers who do their utmost to shift these costs directly onto their workers.

The HealthPartners workers had support from the Minnesota Nurses Association, a union with its own militant experience, having staged the largest ever nurses’ strike in US history in 2010. OPEIU local 12 vowed that their workers would not be crossing the picket lines at HealthPartners clinics. SEIU Local 26, representing 4,000 janitorial workers who were set to go on strike the same week, and St. Paul teachers represented by SPFE, who voted on February 20 to strike with 85% in favor, also expressed solidarity.

HealthPartners Regions Hospital
Regions Hospital, one of the many facilities managed by HealthPartners in the Twin Cities area. / Image: Nbudion

Though these strikes are occurring in different sectors, the workers have all focused on the fight for healthcare. The janitors are striking for more sick days, and St. Paul teachers are demanding more resources in the schools for students suffering from mental illnesses, among other demands. With the advent of coronavirus, the need for quality, universal care becomes even more urgent. The workers are realizing through struggle that they have a shared interest as a class. In West Virginia, more expensive healthcare plans tipped the balance in favor of a teachers’ strike, which spread rapidly throughout the entire state and beyond. This shows the potential for a struggle in one sector to strike a chord and draw in broader layers of the working class.

Healthcare workers have an immense capacity to improve not only their own lives, but the lives of so many others. The world would be a very different place if care for physical and mental illness were organized in a rational way by society, for the benefit of society—not on a for-profit basis. The bosses clearly recognize the enormous potential of the workers and fear the “escalation” of a united struggle across different workplaces and industries. However, workers shouldn’t be afraid of “escalation”—we have everything to gain from linking arms with our sisters and brothers in solidarity and uniting our struggles.

Quality healthcare for all!
Capitalism is on life support—healthcare workers can help pull the plug!
Nationalize the private healthcare sector and place all hospitals, clinics, and health services under democratic workers’ control!

Are you a communist?
Then apply to join your party!