Winter vacation is when I finally get around to reading stacks of magazines that have piled up over the fall. In my perusal, I discovered this terrific article from the current issue of the New Republic (yes, at the top of the stack; I haven’t gotten very far) by Jonathan Cohn. Cohn traces the history of the UAW and the Big Three, and reminds us that the project the autoworkers attempted was to guarantee a middle class lifestyle for “average Joes” who did difficult physical labor. Led by Walter Reuther, the UAW paved the way for such novel ideas as grievance procedures, health care, and pensions. 

There were two problems, according to Cohn: First, as Japanese and German competitors built cars with better fuel efficiency, they also had dramatically lower health care costs because of universal coverage systems in their countries. As we’ve heard a lot in recent years, cars produced by the Big Three cost an additional couple thousand dollars out the door compared to their foreign counterparts, and this is because there’s no universal healthcare in the U.S. 

Second, the unions made a fatal mistake that Reuther worked hard to avoid: they got greedy and asked for too much. Not only did they get health benefits while working; they got them for retirees, and even for their surviving spouses after their deaths. Grievance procedures designed to protect good workers from arbitrary action by management were used to protect mediocre workers from legitimate action. Etc., etc.

Cohn’s article, combined with this piece by Jacob Hacker in the same issue, makes a strong case for the Obama administration to make fixing the health care system a top priority in the forthcoming stimulus spending. While the focus will inevitably be on the short term (it always is), now is precisely the time that long-term fixes that require major up-front expenditures (like a national health insurance system) should be undertaken. To quote Hillel, If not now, when. And to those who would call this socialism, that’s a red herring: the government just bought the banks, bailed out the auto industry, and runs agriculture in America. It’s time to get this right.