Health care drive expands to 30 more states

BALTIMORE — Labor and community organizations are celebrating the Maryland Legislature’s vote Jan. 12 to override Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich’s veto of the Fair Share Health Care Act, better known as the “Wal-Mart bill.”

An exultant Vinnie DeMarco, president of the Maryland Health Care For All Coalition, told the World, “Fair Share Health Care is going to sweep the nation. This is an important step for health care. Corporations like Wal-Mart cannot shift this burden to taxpayers.”

Already, a coalition spearheaded by the United Food and Commercial Workers is planning to introduce legislation modeled on the Maryland bill in 30 or more states.

UFCW President Joe Hansen hailed the veto override. “Working families nationwide will take heart from the passage of Fair Share Health Care,” he said. “We have a national health care crisis in this country but that doesn’t excuse large employers like Wal-Mart from shifting their health care costs onto taxpayers and responsible employers.”

Every time UFCW members negotiate health care benefits with their employers, said Hansen, “they face demands for cutbacks. … Large employers like Wal-Mart game the system to get unfair business advantages.” He was referring to a bitter strike battle by 70,000 grocery workers in California just to save their health care benefits from a Wal-Mart instigated takeaway drive.

The legislation stipulates that any corporation with 10,000 or more employees must earmark at least 8 percent of its payroll to provide health care or pay an equivalent amount to the state to provide health care benefits for its workers.

Only four employers in the state — Johns Hopkins, Giant Food, Lockheed-Martin and Wal-Mart — have that many employees. All but Wal-Mart already provide health benefits above that threshold. Critics accuse Wal-Mart of spending 5 percent or less of its payroll on health care compared with unionized Giant Food, which spends 23 percent of its payroll costs for health care. Giant supported the bill. Wal-Mart employs 17,000 employees in Maryland and instructs its workers to seek health care under Medicaid, costing taxpayers more than $2,000 annually per worker.

An internal memo was leaked last fall in which Wal-Mart Vice President Susan Chambers admitted, “Wal-Mart’s critics can easily exploit some aspects of our benefits to make their case. In other words, our critics are correct … our coverage is expensive for low-income families and Wal-Mart has a significant percentage of our associates and their children on public assistance.”

On learning of this memo, DeMarco said, “We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.”

Wal-Mart flooded Annapolis with lobbyists who threatened to cancel plans to build a distribution center employing 1,000 workers in poverty-stricken Somerset Count on the Eastern Shore. But the coalition called their bluff. Even so, Wal-Mart is threatening to seek a court injunction to block the law.

Jim Baldridge, a Johns Hopkins Hospital worker active in the Maryland Universal Health Care Action Network (UHCAN), told the World that labor and its allies unleashed a campaign that began as soon as Ehrlich vetoed the measure last fall.

“Overriding that veto is a victory for health care,” Baldridge said. “UHCAN’s position is that the Wal-Mart bill is another reform measure that deserves support. It is a step forward but it doesn’t answer the question of universal health care. We need a single-payer health care program administered by the government to solve this crisis.” For the fifth time, a single-payer health care bill will be introduced in the Maryland Legislature this year, he said.

The Legislature also voted Jan. 17 to override Ehrlich’s veto of an increase in the state’s minimum wage to $6.15 an hour. Critics say these vetoes expose Ehrlich, who is running for re-election next November, as a stooge of the corporate rich and the ultra-right.

Tim Wheeler contributed to this story.