Health premiums, unions & politics

Tuesday - 9/25/2012, 2:00am EDT

Politicians rarely throw federal workers a bone anymore. When they do it, it is often a small one delivered with fanfare just before the Presidential election.

Like this year.

Like last week.

Despite ever-increasing medical costs, the government last week surprised hardly anybody by announcing that the average premium in Uncle Sam's in-house health plan is going up only 3.4 percent next January. That's an "average" hike of 3.7 percent for employees and 3.4 percent for the government which pays just over 70 percent of the total premium.

That small increase — compared to much higher premium hikes in private-sector health plans — had few federal workers dancing in the street! In January, most will enter their third year in the pay deep-freeze. The Obama administration proposed the 2011 and 2012 freeze, but the president recommended a very modest 0.5 percent increase for 2013. That raise has been put on hold, by Congress, until at least March of next year. It is very likely that it will be extended, meaning no raise for feds in 2013.

Meantime, the price of many other things — basics like food, clothing and shelter — continues to rise even as feds pay their bills using the 2010 pay scale.

Postal workers are not involved in the pay freeze but they have their own problems. The USPS has offered a variety of buyouts in an effort at big-time downsizing. It also wants to close offices and facilities and set up its own health-care program which scares lots of workers. Postals, thanks to their union contracts, pay substantially lower health premiums than their fellow white-collar workers in other departments and agencies.

Federal union leaders say they will make a dramatic push for a retroactive (2013) pay raise. All of them supported candidate Obama in 2008. All of them have been disappointed (in private, enraged) by things like the pay freeze. But they expect (hope?) a second term will mean better things for their members.

Federal, and particularly postal, unions were real political powers on Capitol Hill in the 1960s. Lobbyists helped write pro-fed legislation. President Lyndon Johnson frequently called upon the presidents of the National Association of Letter Carriers and the American Postal Workers Union to lobby for him in the Senate and to be highly visible in the visitors gallery when the Senate was voting on certain bills. Two nonpostal federal union leaders publicly — as individuals — supported President Nixon's reelection campaign in return for benefits that were delivered.

The fact that it is illegal to strike against the government worked in favor of the unions because they didn't need to amass a strike-fund war chest. They could, and did, devote most of their time cultivating Congress. But those days are gone. Because...

Federal workers just aren't joining unions. At least not in big numbers and, in many cases, the gains are offset as people of a generation that saw real value in unions, retire. That's why unions talk about how many people they represent rather than the much smaller numbers of dues-paying members. While most nonpostal feds seem apathetic about unions, membership blossomed — during the Bush years — in state and local governments.

Federal and postal unions are required to represent non-members that are part of their bargaining units. Some people who don't join and don't pay dues have asked for — in some cases demanded — union help. And received it. In other cases, not so much...

The solution: Well, that's still a work in progress.

How do people feel out government unions? Check today's comments section for a possible clue.


NEARLY USELESS FACTOID

By Jack Moore

When is being a couch potato a good thing? Maybe when you're watching reruns? "Watching a rerun of a favorite TV show may help restore the drive to get things done in people who have used up their reserves of willpower or self-control," according to a new study from the University of Buffalo's Research Institute on Addictions, Science Daily reports. So get watching!


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