Fighting for the New York Health Act: An interview with MORE's Health Justice Working Group

From fewer doctors in network to higher co-pays, every UFT member knows our healthcare, like that of most people in the US, has gotten worse over the years.  This is because the American healthcare system is not designed to keep working people healthy—it’s designed to enrich insurance companies, big hospital chains, and the pharmaceutical giants.  

The New York Health Act (NYHA) would cover all New Yorkers under one medicare-style program, eliminating the private insurance companies entirely.  And it would force hospitals and pharmaceutical companies to charge reasonable rates.

The UFT’s Delegate Assembly, the union’s highest decision making body, has endorsed the New York Health Act twice: in 2015 and 2017.  But instead of fighting to improve healthcare for all New Yorkers, the UFT leadership has spent the last decade cutting deals with the city that save the city money but makes our healthcare worse.  Retirees have fought back against attacks on their healthcare.  It’s time for in-service members to do the same.  Ultimately, we need our union to fight, not just to keep the healthcare we have, but to improve it by enacting the NYHA.  

Strikehot sat down with five activists from MORE’s Health Justice Working Group—Martina M., Kate C., Ilona N., Meg J., Ali H.—to talk about how they are building a campaign to win the UFT over to NYHA.



Strikehot: Could you say a little bit about what your campaign has been up to you with the New York Health Act.

Martina: Health Justice has been communicating with folks from the UFT offices, trying to get clarity on the concerns that they have about the New York Health Act, what the nature of their resistance is, and how we can address those concerns with the bill’s sponsor, Senator Gustavo Rivera.  It was very difficult to bring everyone together.  But because of our diligent, dogged determination and persistence, we were able to successfully have that meeting on the 15th of March. We had a sit down with Senator Gustavo Rivera and his staff and our union president, Michael Mulgrew, our secretary, Leroy Barr, and other relevant officers and staff members at a very long table on the 14th floor.


Strikehot: What was the outcome of that meeting?

 Kate: That was the second meeting we actually had with the officers. We had set up our own meeting, in I think December, with the Health Justice crew.  We didn't know who to expect at that meeting. We had requested a meeting with Michael Mulgrew.  We came to the table. There were about 12 to 14 people there, possibly to try to intimidate us. But we were not intimidated. We were able to hold it down, go over everything, and tried to bust some of the myths which they were still clinging to.

Bottomline: at the end of the meeting our initially agreed upon ask was to have two officers meet back at the same table with Senator Rivera, the bill’s current sponsor.  We got the yes on that, and then on the fifteenth we were joined by Senator Rivera, his chief of staff, [and other people from his office]. We were there for about 90 minutes, going over some misconceptions.   While there was still some resistance, there was also some curiosity on UFT's part. You know, we had more credibility in the room.  We had people answering them that are sponsoring the bill.  That made the conversation go a lot better.  I think we made real progress.  And there will be follow up meetings.

I actually bumped into Michael Mulgrew on the way out of an executive board meeting.  He was in conversation with somebody else, but stopped and pulled me aside and said, “Hey, I just heard about the last half of what you were saying. I didn't catch it all, but thank you.”  And he said, “You know, I spoke with Senator Rivera's office on Saturday.  And I said, you really think we could do this stuff?  And you know, Rivera said definitely.” He told me a little bit more about that conversation, but obviously that conversation is continuing between Rivera and Mulgrew.

 Ali: Yeah, I just wanted to add that before these meetings, we held a number of town halls where we had experts on the NYHA come in.  We held maybe four last year. We've held two so far this year.  We’ve also been flyering at the DAs.   Kate and Martina have also gone fairly consistently to the executive board to speak for those first 10 minutes and just continue to raise the New York Health Act as something of interest to rank a file members.


Strikehot: that leads us into our next question.  Obviously the long term goal here is to pass the New York Health Act.  But how would you characterize your more short term goals, like this year or the next.

Ilona:  Ali was talking about the town halls, and those have been great.   But what we've realized is that it’s a lot of older members, particularly retirees—which is understandable, you know, considering where they might be in their health journeys.

But what we really want is to build a broader base of support amongst all members and to get more folks really recognizing that this isn't just a retiree issue, but an issue for all.

So being more targeted in our outreach with in-service members and really building their awareness around what the New York Health Act is.  And bringing in more chapter based organizing.  Ali has shared a PowerPoint that we had done that folks could use in their chapter meetings to spur discussions around the New York Health Act.  But really trying to build a broader base of support.


Strikehot: Our next question was how is the campaign connected to the struggle to preserve our current healthcare for both in-service members and retirees.   Ilona and Ali have already spoken about that a little bit but does anyone want to add anything?

 Martina: We don't think that this meeting would have happened if the UFT wasn't taking this seriously.  The 2018 contract dipped into the Stabilization fund significantly in order to get us minimal wage increases. And then we're committing to this $600 million a year give back of our healthcare benefits, to save the city money.   It's very short sided to utilize this concessionary bargaining, giving up our healthcare as a bargaining tool to increase our wages, and we didn't even see the increases in wages that one might expect.

Our concern is that if you just take this to the nth degree, there's not much more to give up.  We hear a lot in the DA that, you know, we're one of the only unions that has premium free healthcare, all of these things.   Everyone can have premium free healthcare if we support the New York Health Act.  We wonder if there could be a paradigm shift where we don't rely upon our employment to guarantee us healthcare.

 So what we're seeing is the pressure that's combined from retirees resisting this push to Medicare advantage, combined with the very misguided attempt to find those savings elsewhere once the Medicare Advantage push was resisted in the courts. Now there is a request for proposals for 10% reduction of costs: which means, you know, we're getting 10% worse healthcare.  We see both of these things as huge mistakes.  Our hope is that our union officers see that there are only two ways out.  Besides making us pay premiums, which doesn't seem like a good move—another way out would be to address the concerns that they have with the bill and support it.

Ilona:  In terms of Mulgrew and some of the other officers’ willingness to meet with us and to engage with Senator Rivera, there is a very concerted inside/outside effort. And the outside effort is just as important.  They repeatedly bring up and are very angry about being pushed back against at the Delegate Assembly and at exec board and in the blogs and stuff.  And that, you know, they are feeling the pressure from members.   And I think it's really important that folks are reminded about how much power we do have, even when we're not necessarily in those UFT sanctioned spaces.  So it is important to continue making them feel uncomfortable and putting the pressure on them and showing up at the exec board during open mics, raising questions at the Delegate Assembly, but also putting pressure on them in other spaces, like flyering outside of the DA, talking to members who then raise those questions in the different town halls.  Because ultimately, I think that's what forced their hand and then had them actually sit at a table with us.

 And I will also say that I think they're seeing the writing on the wall that the current system is not sustainable and that there's only so much they can do.  I think they're realizing that they're at a tipping point, that they’re not going to be able to do that in the next 10 years.  And so right now is a really important historical moment in that case where we're kind of at a crossroads. It's really important that we keep up the pressure now so that we continue pushing them down the road that leads to the New York Health Act.


Strikehot: Why do you think for the last 10 years or more, they’ve been pursuing this strategy of givebacks on healthcare, instead of, first of all, fighting the givebacks and second of all, supporting something like the New York Health Act.   What do you think their motivation is?

Meg: I think there's this, I would almost call it an erroneous belief that healthcare is their strongest bargaining chip, and it's the most they feel like they can play with and be able to manipulate.  I think they feel if they can make concessions on healthcare, then they can fight for more in the contract, like those wonderful (That was sarcasm if it was not apparent) 3% raises that we got.   And they think that healthcare is not as glamorous and more behind the scenes.  And really, you know, you have healthcare. So that should be good enough.  That's sort of the tone that I felt in that meeting.  They were very almost peacockingly proud, the fact that they were able to get so much in the contract on the back of the healthcare.

 Ilona: Yeah, I would also say that it's definitely the monster they know.  They know it's a messed up system, but they also know how to work within it. The other thing is that in the MLC [Municipal Labor Committee; the body that negotiates healthcare for city workers—Eds] they have a majority, they're really the ones that control it—that keeps coming up a lot too.  They’re in this position where they know the beast, and they have full control over the MLC, and so there's a lot of fear of what happens if they give that up. What happens when everyone has an equal say at the table?  What happens with this new healthcare system that they're not familiar with?

Martina: I also think it's important to mention their patronage system.  What the devil that they know is doing is they're creating a system where they have power and the patronage system allows them to hold that power.  So the UFT welfare fund is a series of cushy jobs that pay way more than classroom positions.  Folks who are loyal to the Unity caucus are provided with these positions.

It's obvious that this would—as Ilona was alluding to— require a shift in our strategy.  We would argue that this is an opportunity for us to engage the rank and file and to really deepen our strength as a union and and gear up for—I’m very aware that, you know, strike is a word used seldomly—but I feel like this is a possibility of us to actually, you know, regain the control of our union and bring power to the rank and file, as opposed to housing it inside of this patronage system.

And I also just want to surface that in our first meeting—which was not with Senator Gustavo Rivera—one of the UFT lawyers used the term ‘concession’.  He acknowledged that if we aren't able to make concessions with healthcare, how will we earn higher wages? He put that question to us, and we pushed back: we could withhold our labor, you know.  There's many other ways to get it.  Or we could elucidate all the things that we have done as teachers in the pandemic, etc, and, you know, we can demand better wages.

 In the second meeting, in front of Gustavo Rivera and his chief of staff and multiple staff members, it was much more public facing.  I used the term ‘concessionary’, which is the adjective of the noun that their lawyer used the previous meeting.  Leroy Barr stood up, unbuttoned his jacket, and started screaming at me: “you don't know what you're talking about. How dare you accuse us of concessionary bargaining. What about your healthcare. You all lie all the time and we don't even deal with you about it.”  And he's screaming at me. We have witnesses in the room.   He was screaming at me that he's not screaming at me. So it also was clear that the use of the term ‘concessionary’—although they seem to be willing to use it to describe their own bargaining—if we use that term, it's a very charged and loaded term. I think it's interesting because it's probably the only way to describe their philosophy of bargaining, but, you know, apparently it was the wrong thing to say.

So I just want to say they're very sensitive about it, even though it's literally the definition of concessionary bargaining.


Strikehot: What advice and tools can you all provide for people who want to get their chapters active around this issue? And a related question: how can we get the MORE caucus more involved in this campaign?  Ilona and others have made a really persuasive argument that the pressure from below is the key thing that's forcing them to move on the issue.

 Ali: I think a big thing in terms of building a campaign is always listening to members, right. But some prompting questions can be, like, “Oh, how are the changes in our healthcare affecting you right now?”,  “Have you been to urgent care recently and seeing the increase in co-pays?”.   Just sort of starting this conversation about how our healthcare is declining.  And then introduce NYHA as a viable alternative, how it really does have the votes in the state Senate, it just needs to get put on the floor for a vote.  And I guess our union is really the biggest block to making that happen.

 Kate.  Thank you, Ali.  I’ll add on too that if any chapter leaders or delegates need support delivering information to their chapter members, we're happy to attend chapter meetings.

We're happy to send you materials. We can definitely support anyone in their conversations. We have PowerPoints available. We have literature specifically for unions on the New York Health Act designed by the Campaign for New York Health.  Happy to get that to anyone.  We've been enjoying working with folks so far and would love to continue that.

 Meg: Okay. I was just going to say something that actually came up in my class last night of the idea of solidarity, not just amongst ourselves and our union, but with other union members, other comrades, other city employees.   And I think a good starting point to broach this is really talking about how this is why we have why we fought for unions.  Why we fought for what we have is because we believed in each other and came together in solidarity, in community.

And that's what we're trying to do now. We're just trying to make the community bigger.

We're just trying to get what we have for all New Yorkers because at the end of the day, that is the one thing that we have in common—whether we teach 3K, special ed, high school, middle school, whatever—we are all residents of the city and the state.  

And we all deserve that right and protection to our health.


Martina: I was going to connect it to how this is about bargaining for the common good and thinking about stuff beyond our union.  Michael Mulgrew made it clear a few times in our first meeting that this is not their position of “why should we allow everyone else outside of our union to have the same benefits if we gave up so much for these benefits”.

Despite him saying that he didn't want that to be how it's perceived, then we have minutes from an MLC meeting about the New York Health Act where he exactly said that.   Where he acknowledged that it was completely a concern that he doesn't want to give other people access to benefits that we have made sacrifices for.

And I also want to say that they are right on a technicality: within the text at least one of the resolutions included that it would be an economic boon for the state and his argument is that it may not be; it may be really costly.

And we just reject that idea.  Because everything is really costly, and it may actually be an economic boon for the state to not have to have so many [people without healthcare].  And  also two more things. One is that the New York health act would be better because it includes long term care, which our healthcare doesn’t.  And another thing is that our parents lose healthcare when they take more than 12 weeks.  And that's like a really terrible part of our parental leave system.  The New York Health Act would eliminate that completely and work to make sure that everybody, including our students, including our new arrivals, including our undocumented students like everybody would have helped her.  So I just want to say that like our circle is wider and we're concerned about our whole community.

 Ilona: I just want to add really quickly to that. I don't know a single in-service member that is like, “Oh, I love my healthcare”. Like, if you're on G. H. I, the wait times to get an appointment for a network provider is unreal.   In terms of preventative care, it’s really hard to get things covered.  You have to have referrals to do any of the specialties.  Like I had to wait like six months to get an appointment before. And so this idea that somehow we have like the Cadillac of healthcare is just a deeply misleading and really frustrating narrative.

And so I would really ask folks to think about what their healthcare is really covering and what it would be like to live in a world where you didn't have to worry about network providers and disputes with insurance over what's being covered and what's not being covered. 

And, and the other thing I would say is that there's this narrative around the cost and that that in fact is also a false narrative.  There’s—again, I think it's a lot of fear of the unknown—but this idea that it would blow this massive hole in the state's budget is just not true.  We already spend a ton of money on healthcare right now. And that really what's happening is that that's going to a lot of for-profit private companies, i.e. insurance and pharmaceuticals.

So really thinking about what happens when you take them out of the system and the actual care you receive is the price that it should be at and not artificially inflated.

 And so I really want to encourage folks to ask questions, reach out to us,  and, and join the fight.  I know there's so much going on, but all of these struggles are deeply interrelated.   Healthier people means healthier working conditions, which means a healthier world.

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