The umbrella of employment-based health benefits is growing increasingly threadbare. As a result, health benefits are once again a major arena of labor-management strife, and once again calls for universal health care by many labor leaders mask important differences between them over health care reform. Some labor leaders advocate a bottom-up mobilization in support of a single-payer solution that would dismantle the system of job-based benefits rooted in private insurance. Others stake their health care strategy on wooing key business leaders to be constructive partners in some kind of unspecified comprehensive reform of the health system.

Organized labor faces enormous obstacles, both institutional and ideological, to forging an effective united front to fight for comprehensive, high-quality, affordable health care for all. Two entrenched features of the shadow welfare state of job-based benefits, notably the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA) of 1974 and the union-run health and welfare funds created under the Taft-Hartley Act, remain daunting barriers on the road to reform, exacerbating tensions and differences within organized labor. Moreover, a dramatic ideological schism in the labor movement about its future direction vexes its stance on health care reform. These ideological differences fuel vastly different views within organized labor about how best to confront the unraveling of job-based health benefits and the growing popularity among business leaders, insurers, and public officials of the “individual-mandate” solution, which would penalize people who do not have adequate health insurance.

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