Jul 18, 2016
In late June, unionized workers at health insurance giant, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan (BCBSM), got a big shock. The company announced it will end group retiree health benefits for 3,200 current retirees on January 1, 2017. Implicitly, these cuts will extend to the 4,100 workers currently working at BCBSM, who the company had also promised health care benefits when they retire.
BCBSM is a huge company, raking in close to 25 billion dollars in premiums last year, while sitting on four billion dollars in reserves and paying its top executive, Daniel J. Loepp, more than nine million dollars. And, like the rest of the extremely rich health insurance sector, it is growing by leaps and bounds, adding new members year after year in Michigan and around the country.
BCBSM, a rich and powerful company, is using that power against its workforce, to extract more profits by slashing what it pays the people who do the work.
It is tearing up its promises to unionized retirees and workers right in the middle of the contract with the UAW, the union representing the Blue Cross workers. Showing its fangs, the company is snatching away vital benefits from retirees on a fixed income. The company had told them they could count on these benefits for the rest of their lives. Now, the company is giving them a few short months notice before the retirees have to come up with a monthly payment.
The company has tried to sugar coat this attack by partially subsidizing the premiums. But this subsidy comes with strings attached – in order to get it, the retirees have to buy one of the company’s own insurance policies, no doubt with much greater out of pocket costs and/or reduced benefits.
And instead of getting the insurance at the old group rate, the retirees will have to pay the much more costly individual rate. And those health insurance premiums are skyrocketing. BCBSM itself announced that it plans on raising its premiums on so-called Medigap plans for those on Medicare by as much 100 per cent! That’s a warning of the kind of future cost increases that not just BCBSM retirees workers will face, but almost all workers who are retired, since few retired workers get company-provided health insurance anymore.
As shocking as these attacks are, no one should be surprised by them. They are just one more step in the 40-year-old capitalist offensive on retirement benefits. These attacks have come in waves: against new hires and non-union workers and employees. Companies in auto, steel and airlines pretended to go supposedly “bankrupt” in order to rob their unionized workforce and retirees of their benefits. And over the last decade, that offensive has spread to the public sector, as politicians and officials on the state and local level are slashing the retirement benefits of millions of public sector workers, teachers and employees.
Don’t expect the courts to step in, stop this robbery and save the workers’ benefits. The federal courts have already ruled that a company that promised lifetime retirement benefits can unilaterally decide to slash them. In other words, a company’s promises to its workers aren’t worth the paper they are printed on, whether they are in a company brochure explaining the workers’ benefits or in a legal contract.
The working class long ago produced enough wealth to allow everyone to be able to retire young enough, with a decent income to be able to do other things with their lives. But the capitalists are robbing us of this wealth, driving increasing parts of the working class to conditions of centuries ago.
There can be no answer to this ongoing move by the capitalist class to push the whole working class backward – until the working class mobilizes its own forces to defend workers’ own interests and to impose their own needs.
No one knows how such a fight can develop. But it could start if one group of workers – like those at Blue Cross – decides they will resist. What they do can open the way to other sectors to do the same, impelling a large and powerful movement that can meet the capitalist class head on.