, Heritage writer
During World War II, American industrialist Henry J. Kaiser’s job was building ships to win the war. Everything else — the housing and transportation infrastructure required to accommodate the influx of workers, even the incredible health care program that is his greatest surviving legacy — was a secondary, but necessary, part of the deal. And it was accomplished with a remarkable level of respect and cooperation between labor and management.
In an article titled “Class Bitterness Most Serious Problem for Labor, Management” in the Oakland Tribune September 9, 1943, Kaiser said “There is no such thing as labor relations. There are only human relations. You are dealing with people, not impersonal problems of finance or electronics. There are three sides to every argument — your side, my side, and the right side.”
Cooperation was pragmatic. Since Kaiser’s approach to building ships — like products in an assembly line — was new and evolving, there was an urgent need for innovation and shop-floor creativity. Workers were always coming up with more effective and efficient approaches, and rewards ranged from War Bonds to the right to christen a ship.
This cooperation was the task of Labor-Management Committees, established in early 1942 at the behest of the War Production Board. When the committees were first set up, some saw it as a plan by industry to throttle unions, but the WPB directive stated “The plan is not to further any special interests of any group nor to promote company unions or to interfere with bargaining machinery.”
Since production improvement involved many things besides mere mechanics, the committees also concerned themselves with many other matters, such as housing, food, transportation and morale. Valuable suggestions were shared with other shipyards, and by the end of 1944 over 3,000 ideas had come forward that saved an estimated $45 million and 31 million labor-hours.
Today’s health care worksite may not be the war-driven frenzy of the Kaiser shipyards, but it still relies on worker wisdom to serve Kaiser Permanente members through its unit-based teams. These are groups of frontline employees, managers, physicians and dentists whose work brings them together naturally and who collaborate with one another to improve member and patient care. The Kaiser Permanente Labor Management Partnership’s UBTs continue the tradition of healthy competition and innovation to achieve results.
Recent examples of successes include a UBT at Kaiser Permanente’s Capitol Hill Medical Center in Washington, D.C., that adjusted to a big jump in Kaiser Permanente member enrollment and improved patient care at the same time; a team at Colorado’s Ridgeline Behavioral Health which reduced the number of unnecessary Emergency Department visits while still ensuring patient care; and a Sacramento pharmacy that helped members reduce wait times.
Henry J. Kaiser’s vision of labor-management cooperation was channeled by Harry Caulfield, MD, a previous Executive Director of The Permanente Medical Group, when Dr. Caulfield described the first National Partnership Agreement signed in 1997: “When we work together, then we’re able to progress together. But without each other, neither one of us will be able to accomplish anything near what we could accomplish together.”
Top photo courtesy of the National Park Service, Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front NHP, RORI 5049_Box 4-02
Short link to this article: https://k-p.li/2wCB3kt
, Heritage writer
The factory’s got a good medical plan
And, cousin, I’m a union man.
-Warren Zevon, “The Factory,” 1987
For more than 60 years, millions of Americans have gotten health care insurance through their work. Despite employment changes in the American economy, that sort of coverage is still enjoyed by more than half of the non-elderly population. But it wasn’t always that way. The hard work of organized labor was instrumental in making employer-sponsored health coverage a cornerstone of the human services safety net.
Henry J. Kaiser’s workers at the Grand Coulee Dam (1938-1941) enjoyed a well-run prepaid health plan as part of the job, and after the unions insisted, their families were able to join. The same benefits later applied to Kaiser’s 190,000 defense workers during World War II.
But this was an anomaly. Most American workers had nothing remotely close to a nonindustrial health care plan, even in the booming years after the war. That would change in 1948 and 1949 with two key labor law rulings, W. W. Cross & Company, Inc. v. United Steelworkers of America, CIO and Inland Steel Co. v. National Labor Relations Board, which established a precedent for union contracts regarding hospital and surgical benefits for employees and their dependents.
The first case involved the union at Pacific Coast Steel Co., Local 1069, in the San Francisco Bay Area, which selected the Permanente Health Plan (now called Kaiser Permanente) for its members and requested that employers provide payroll deductions for health care. Bethlehem Steel Company (which acquired Pacific Coast Steel in 1930) disputed their right to make such a decision. The union brought the issue to court, and won.
With the Inland Steel case, trial examiners from the National Labor Relations Board ruled that the employers were guilty of unfair labor practices in not consulting the Steelworkers Union when they put insurance and pension plans into effect. The examiners in both cases directed the companies to bargain with the union on the type and extent of these plans.
Inland Steel appealed, but on September 23, 1948, a higher court affirmed the NLRB position and ordered Inland Steel to bargain with the CIO union concerning retirement pension plans. This ruling applied to all unionized companies engaged in interstate commerce.
The door to employer-sponsored health care plans had been opened, and hundreds of thousands of working people benefitted. This was a major step forward in building public expectations that medical care be affordable and accessible. The two rulings fundamentally shifted organized labor’s role in defending and expanding workers’ rights.
In a key example of the ruling’s impact, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union approached the Permanente Health Plan in 1949 about covering their membership. Permanente was attractive to the ILWU for its racially integrated facilities and labor-friendly record during the war. The January 6, 1950, ILWU newspaper The Dispatcher announced the new health plan, and by year’s end, 90 percent of eligible members had signed up.
Thank you, organized labor — you not only brought the weekend to our regular work week, you brought us the employer-sponsored health plan. And on this particular Labor Day weekend, let’s remember and honor the gains made by unions.
Special thanks to ILWU archivist Robin Walker, who has put their newspapers from 1932 to present online.
A longer version of this article appears in The Stansbury Forum.
Short link to this article: http://k-p.li/2xyBU5r