Times Argus Op-Ed
By James Haslam

The teachers’ strike in Barre is just a dispute over who will shoulder more of the health care costs directly, the teachers or the school board. This was the heart of a two-week long strike of teachers in Colchester in October. Like most union members, for decades the teachers have given up wages in negotiations to protect their health insurance. Now, they are also being asked to give up this affordable health insurance benefit. The board wants to boost the health insurance premium co-pay to 20 percent over four years with no cap, for teachers. The Barre teachers have said they will accept more moderate increases — from 12 to 14 percent over four years — but want to keep current language that caps their obligation at a percentage of salary.

It is not helpful to anyone to have one group of workers lose health insurance benefits and for people with affordable health care to be dragged down into the unaffordable health care mess that most experience. That doesn’t make it easier or cheaper for anyone else to get health insurance.

In fact, taxpayers are already paying for perhaps as much as 60 percent of all health care costs. Our taxes pay for school employees, state employees, municipal employees, the armed forces, veterans, federal employees, Medicaid and Medicare recipients. The problem is that many of us pay the majority of health care costs through our taxes, and still don’t have any health care unless we pay our own premiums or just do without health insurance. That is what is unfair and that is a problem that is not fixed by teachers paying a higher co-pay. It is fixed by making health care a right to everybody.

Teachers in Barre, and many other union members, actually have what most workers want and need: an ability to have a say in how they are treated and negotiate what is fair and not have higher costs imposed on them. We should use them as a model and work towards a day when all workers have that same power in their own workplaces. The power of a seat at the table.

It is plain and simple: It is now time for health care reform. It is time that we make health care a basic right available to everybody and lift everyone up to the level where Barre teachers and other union members are. By eliminating profits and waste we can save enough money to have a universal system that covers everybody and takes health insurance out of the middle of contract negotiations. That way, the spiral is upward rather than downward.

James Haslam is the director of the Vermont Workers’ Center — Jobs With Justice, which is working in a broad coalition to launch a statewide grassroots campaign to fight for universal health care.