Harrington: Labor and health care
by James C. Harrington
Posted on September 5, 2009
Americans look at Labor Day as the end-of-the-summer finale and forget its origins. We have that unfortunate tendency with all our holidays – to see them for their festiveness, and not why they exist.
Labor Day came into being to honor working people, who have struggled and continue to struggle to make our democracy vibrant and strong. It is also a day to recognize the accomplishments of the union movement. Organized labor brought us the 5-day week, overtime pay, minimum wage, workplace safety protections, and employer-provided health insurance.
Nor do most Americans remember how hard, long, and even bloody the struggle was – how many people went to jail, lost their jobs, and some even died. The justice of its goals attracted support from some of the nation’s religious communities.
The labor movement ironically has suffered from its success. Part of the reason membership is at a low level is that workers do not feel the same intense need to organize as they did when protections and benefits were not part of the law or of American working culture.
There are workers, however, especially in the health care and service industries, who are still trying to organize for the benefits enjoyed by others – better wages, hours, and working conditions. And agriculture remains an industry where laborers suffer exploitation and are among the lowest paid and least protected.
One work benefit that organized labor tied to employment for years was health insurance, and it became a routine part of the job. In recent years, though, that protection has eroded and now is more the exception than the rule.
More than two-thirds of the uninsured Texans between ages 16 and 64 have jobs. Yet, Texans are far less likely – by about 10 percent – to have employer-supplied health insurance than workers in other states. About half of our businesses don't offer health benefits at all. Roughly seven in eight small business employees either aren't offered or can't afford health insurance.
Between 2000 and 2007, health insurance costs rose 87 percent in Texas, but workers’ paychecks only increased by 15 percent during the same time. Medical bills went up six times faster than people's paychecks.
Overall, Texas has the highest percentage of people without health care in the nation. One fourth of Texans, almost 6 million people, have no health insurance. Texas also has the nation's highest percentage of children without health insurance. One of every six uninsured American kids lives in Texas.
This Labor Day, amid the national health care debate, is an occasion to reflect on the proposition that health insurance for workers should be a right, which cannot be taken away.
Health care is a right because everyone is entitled to remain and be kept healthy so they can enjoy the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Health should not just be for the rich, but for everyone -- so all can take advantage of the rights this country has given us.
One other lesson we learn from the labor movement is that our country survives best when we live as a community, watching out for each other, and not as a conglomerate of rugged individualists. American democracy has taught us that community life can help us develop better as individuals than going it on our own. That’s a lesson we need to apply to the health care debate.
Harrington is director of the Texas Civil Rights Project, a nonprofit foundation that promotes civil rights and economic and racial justice throughout Texas, attempting to bring about systemic change through education and litigation.
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