Folk-rocker Billy Bragg gave a union rally on the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus a kick in the pants today, performing an impromptu, two-song set on the steps of Morrill Hall – and throwing his support behind the U’s frontline workers as they bargain for affordable health care coverage.
Bragg, an Englishman whose songwriting blends the energy of punk rock with the protest spirit of American folk music, said people in his country are puzzled by the United States’ for-profit approach to health care.
He acknowledged Americans’ “spirit of individualism,” but said unless access to health care, education and other services are guaranteed for all, “only the rich and powerful will get to express their individualism, and the rest of us will be exploited by them.”
Bragg, playing a sold-out show in Minneapolis tonight, performed “I Keep Faith,” a song off his most recent album, and the classic labor song “There Is Power in a Union,” which, not surprisingly, went over well with the crowd of about 100 people.
“Political parties change their spots, but labor unions are always standing up for working people,” Bragg said.
Clerical and technical workers at the university, members of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, planned the rally as a demonstration against the U’s most recent contract proposal, which would shift $1.8 million in health care costs onto all employees.
AFSCME leaders say the proposal would hit the U’s lowest-paid workers hardest. They countered with a sliding scale, which would determine health care premiums according to an employee’s wages or salary.
“We are leading the charge in our collective bargaining sessions to stop these changes to our health care,” AFSCME Local 3800 President Cherrene Horazuk said. “We reject the U’s proposal for higher co-pays and deductibles and other cost-shifting schemes.”
Administrators say the U must shift some costs onto employees in order to avoid taxes on the health plan under the federal health care reform law. AFSCME Council 5 Chief of Staff Eric Lehto rejected that argument, pointing to the most-recent contract bargained by AFSCME members and the State of Minnesota.
“Gov. Dayton didn’t use the Affordable Care Act as an excuse,” Lehto said. “I ask (U of M) President Eric Kaler, why are you trying to do that when the State of Minnesota didn’t?”