Sarah "Joe-Six-Pack" Palin pulled her labor union roots out of the frozen Alaskan soil and started shaking them at normally union-allergic Republican crowds from the day John McCain announced her as his running mate.
Recently, she redoubled her efforts to cast herself not as a governor and member of an elite American family earning more than $165,000 a year, but as Joe Six-Pack and someone whose membership in a union enabled her to secure health insurance for her family. Her confounding statements reveal John McCain as a hypocrite on the issue of unionization.
McCain, who has condemned unions as "serious excesses" and said government workers are "crippled by the fine print of the latest union contract," introduced Palin by bragging about her union background -- as if he approved. "The person I am about to introduce to you," he said, "was a union member and is married to a union member."
After that, Palin repeatedly put her husband, Todd, on display, telling crowds that he is "a proud member of the United Steelworkers Union." Then, last week, Palin went on talk radio and said that her family was without health insurance or had to figure out how to buy it themselves, until, "Todd and I both landed a couple of good union jobs."
That makes perfect sense since unionized workers are 28 percent more likely to be covered by employer-provided health insurance than nonunion workers, according to a study by the Economic Policy Institute. And employers with unionized workforces pay a greater share of the cost, lowering deductibles and co-payments for union families, the EPI study found.
What doesn't make sense is for the anti-union McCain campaign to be boasting about the benefits of union membership. Like many Republicans, McCain has made it clear that he feels about unions the way an Alaskan aerial hunter does about wolves -- best when dead.
John McCain denigrates labor leaders as "big union bosses" as if such a thing exists in a country where union membership has steadily declined for decades, a weakening caused by Republican policies implemented against the interests of organized labor and the middle class. McCain helped block the Employee Free Choice Act, which would help even the playing field between workers trying to organize their own workplaces to improve conditions and corporations that hire union-busters to prevent it. He voted to block a bill that would have protected American strikers against companies hiring permanent replacements -- a safeguard for workers that is commonplace in other industrialized nations.
But, suddenly, when he needs the middle class vote, John S. McCain is trying to convert himself into John L. Lewis. It's like his position on regulation. He was Mr. Deregulation until Wall Street collapsed. Now, he's all for it. And his position on tax breaks for the nation's wealthiest citizens. He voted against it twice. But now he has promised as part of his campaign platform to make that Bush tax break for the rich permanent. He was either for it before he was against it, or he was against it before he was for it. But in the case of unions, his lip service doesn't automatically translate into a flip flop.
It's one thing for Palin to acknowledge that her family was without health insurance until she and Todd joined unions. The McCain health insurance plan is another thing entirely. It won't be good for the middle class, union members or not. It's a flop. And McCain's not flipping on that.
The pain in the McCain health plan is the tax. He plans to create a brand new tax on health care benefits. The value of employer-provided health benefits -- the kind Palin got when she joined a union -- would be added to workers' incomes, then taxed. For a worker with a median income and health plan, the extra cost would be about $1,300 a year. But for union members, who earn more and whose insurance plans are better, the added taxes may be more than $3,000 a year.
McCain says he would offset that additional cost with tax credits -- $2,500 for individuals and $5,000 for families. It won't work though. The money is not a rebate for taxpayers but a credit for insurance companies. The money goes directly from government coffers into the pockets of insurers. And there's nothing to prevent them from hiking up their prices by that amount -- something that wouldn't be out of the question considering the startling rate at which insurers have increased their fees.
Similarly, there's nothing to stop employers from simply reducing the amount they pay toward insurance coverage by the amount of the "credit." Maybe unions could stop their employers from cutting payments because of protections in contracts, but the "credits" would become another bargaining issue.
Numerous professional organizations that have analyzed McCain's plan have projected that it would result in millions of young and healthy people leaving their newly income-taxed employer-provided plans and buying untaxed insurance with their tax credits. That would leave the older, less healthy workers in the employer-provided plan, making it increasingly expensive, and very quickly consuming at any portion of that $5,000 credit that might be left.
It is also projected that many employers will terminate coverage as costs rise, forcing workers to try to buy insurance on their own. And that raises another problem with the McCain plan -- he will not require companies to insure people with pre-existing conditions, like allergies, asthma and diabetes. That would greatly increase the pool of 47 million uninsured in this country, including many a Joe Six-Pack and his family.
All of this makes it particularly disconcerting for McCain's emissary to publically celebrate the fact that her union card provided her family with health insurance. Palin needs to announce whether she disagrees with McCain -- as she does on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge -- or whether she espouses the McPain plan to tax health care. Joe Six-Pack wants to know.