THE BLOG

Just Like the Golden Gate Bridge, Obamacare Will Continually Have Men Painting It

08/27/2013 05:25 pm ET | Updated Oct 27, 2013

With most major provisions of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA), commonly and often pejoratively referred to as "Obamacare," set to go into effect in January, 2014 (and 2015 and 2018 and 2020) union members across the country have been wondering how it will affect the health care benefits already laid out in their union contracts.

Although it's a bit unnerving how few people in positions of authority (plant managers, HR reps, union officials, et al) actually know how the PPACA will work, one thing everyone seems to agree upon is that, as a landmark piece of social engineering, Obamacare is likely to remain a work-in-progress for decades to come.

Supporters of it like to urge critics to back off and remain patient by reminding them that other ambitious social programs, such as Social Security, Medicare and even the 1964 Civil Rights Act experienced their own "growing pains." That's true. But what these supporters don't mention is that those earlier programs didn't have millions of people dedicated to seeing them fail. (Or did they?)

Given today's polarization, if the House and Senate continue to swap majorities every four years or so, with Democrats and Republicans alternating leadership, the PPACA could be systematically gutted, resurrected, amplified, codified, and rectified, ad infinitum. Without the necessary votes to repeal it or energize it, it will continue to be whipped back and forth like a pea in some cosmic shell game.

Unfortunately, even not knowing how it will work, Obamacare looms as a threat to labor. As a general rule, unless a union contract is in direct violation of state or federal law, it trumps everything. That's the beauty of a union contract. But with Obamacare, there's a so-called "Cadillac tax," which would blunt any attempt by union members to negotiate health insurance that's deemed "too rich."

Collective bargaining is a magnificent process. Nothing is more primitive or democratic than collective bargaining. Management and labor get to argue across the table until (1) they reach an agreement, (2) the company locks them out, or (3) the union goes on strike. This arrangement didn't come easy; it took organized labor more than a hundred years to obtain the right to control its own destiny.

As for the Cadillac tax, I don't personally see a Democratic administration pushing it as far as some people fear. While labor unions realize that Democrats have been more or less gutless when it comes to fighting for them, it's a whole other deal for them to publicly chop the legs out from under a union negotiating team.

Negotiation is a union's stock-in-trade. Organized labor contributed a reported $300 million to the Democrats in 2008. Just as Congress would never dream of limiting what a CEO could earn, limiting what a union can take away from the bargaining table should be equally taboo. I simply don't see it happening.

But there's irony here. Prior to PPACA, management could unilaterally withdraw its medical coverage. Although such an audacious stunt would almost assuredly invite a strike, it's a move that's been done in the past; and with replacement workers standing ready, some companies have gotten away with it without going to war. A weak union, or a union dealing with a struggling company, wouldn't have much of a choice.

With the PPACA, companies won't have that option. Unilaterally removing medical coverage from the contract will no longer automatically result in cost savings because health care will be (conditionally) mandatory. And based on how most businesses regard government mandates, it's safe to say that they'd rather take their chances with a union bargaining team.

Alas, there's a flip-side. Fewer workers may wish to join a union once they realize companies are now required to provide health insurance. In truth, the reason some people join a union in the first place is for the medical, so this scenario isn't that farfetched. In any event, one thing is clear. Obamacare is destined to remain a perpetual adolescent. It will neither die nor see adulthood.

David Macaray, an LA playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor," 2nd edition), is a former union rep.