Unions Fear Health Tax Would Target Middle Class Imposing a tax on the most costly health insurance plans is important — many say essential — to bringing health care costs down. The problem for President Obama is that the unions for years have been negotiating bigger and better health insurance packages in lieu of wage increases. On Monday, Obama met with labor leaders to discuss the matter.

Unions Fear Health Tax Would Target Middle Class

Unions Fear Health Tax Would Target Middle Class

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Imposing a tax on the most costly health insurance plans is important — many say essential — to bringing health care costs down. The problem for President Obama is that the unions for years have been negotiating bigger and better health insurance packages in lieu of wage increases. On Monday, Obama met with labor leaders to discuss the matter.

DEBORAH AMOS, Host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Renee Montagne is on vacation. I'm Deborah Amos.

STEVE INSKEEP, Host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

AMOS: An American car brand is still used as a synonym for high-priced luxury. You can find proof of that in this week's discussions in Washington about health care.

AMOS: Here's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON: Here's the president in an interview with NPR last month.

INSKEEP: I think that we can structure something that protects ordinary workers, makes sure that they are getting a great health care plan, but also makes sure that they're not overpaying in a situation where they're just giving money to health insurance companies that instead could actually be going into their pockets in the form of higher salaries.

LIASSON: Here's AFL-CIO president Rich Trumka at the press club yesterday.

AMOS: But instead of taxing the rich, the Senate bill taxes the middle class by taxing workers' health plans - not just union members' health care plans. In fact, most of the 31 million uninsured or insured employees who will be hit by the excise tax are not union members.

LIASSON: Steve Rosenthal is the former political director of the AFL-CIO. He worries about what happens politically when union members are disillusioned with Democrats. And they are disillusioned today, Rosenthal says, because of the Cadillac tax and the fact that a bill making it easier to organize workers, the Employee Free Choice Act, still hasn't come up in the Senate.

AMOS: The union vote is really critical in - particularly in mid-term elections. And if you look at the numbers of the states that are battleground states in 2010 - places like Ohio and Pennsylvania and Illinois and Missouri and Michigan - certainly, these are all states where the union vote is significant, and by that, I mean anywhere from 25 percent of all the votes cast in these states, in some cases up to 37 percent. In 1994, we saw what happened when union members stayed home.

LIASSON: At the press club, Rich Trumka delivered an even sterner warning. He said no matter how hard union leaders may work this year for Democratic candidates, it may be hard to get their rank-and-file to follow them, the same problem Democrats faced in 1994.

AMOS: We swallowed our disappointment and we worked to preserve a Democratic majority in 1994 because we knew what the alternative was. But there was no way to persuade enough working Americans to go to the polls when they couldn't tell the difference between the policies of the two parties. So politicians who think that working people have it too good are actually inviting a repeat of 1994.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

LIASSON: At the White House, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs dismissed that scenario.

AMOS: I think working men and women in this country will be fully motivated in 2010 about the choices that they have in front of them.

LIASSON: Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House.

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