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Black Workers Lead Labor Fight for Affordable Health Care in the Black Belt

The Carolina Auto, Aerospace & Machine Workers Union (CAAMWU) is a chartered chapter of the statewide UE Local 150, affiliated with the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America. CAAMWU-UE 150 is a majority African-American Workers Union in eastern North Carolina’s historic Black Belt Nash & Edgecombe counties that has from its inception adopted a program based on militant rank and file democratic social unionism.

The organizations emergence in 1997 and continued growing influence on the US national labor movement as a whole. This represents the combined political vision and 20 year joint initiative of the Black Workers for Justice and the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE). This joint venture share resources to assist predominate low wage Black workers to exercise their rights under the National Labor Relations Act to self-organize and build power to advance their interests as the most oppressed sector of the US multi-national working class in the strategically important US South.

Workers at the Cummins Rocky Mount (NC) Engine Plant (the largest Cummins manufacturing facility in the US with approximately 2,000 workers) produce diesel truck engines. And although the union does not have a Collective Bargaining Agreement (a contract) with Cummins Corporation, the union members have been standing up and advancing the fight for workers rights, workplace justice and greater democracy practiced on the job.

CAAMWU exercising their legal right “to engage in legally protected concerted activities” utililizes it’s union newsletter, the “Unity News” to educate and raise the political and class consciousness of the entire workforce whether they are currently union members or not. Through effective use of surveys, petitions, rallies, etc. backed up by support and leveraged pressure from the broader community against the company acting in the interests of the workers’ “mutual aid and protection” and been able to win significant victories for better pay, dignity and respect, and non-discriminatory treatment over its 20 plus year history.

In 2011, Cummins implemented a high deductible/ HSA health insurance plan across all of its global manufacturing operations. Whereas a few years ago health care coverage was provided free to all of its employees, Cummins workers are faced with literal “life and death” decision making regarding health care and medical challenges facing themselves and their families. For a family of 4, workers are being forced to pay up to $12,000.00 a year in out of pocket costs for medical needs. Consistent with its social unionism vision and practice, CAAMWU has over the years reached out to workers in other Cummins workplaces throughout the country. Some of these workplaces are represented by other unions, and some unorganized, developing and periodically making use of a broader more powerful “Cummings Workers Alliance infrastructure” to more effectively organize and agitate around identified large scale systemic problems and issues with the company.

This current fight around affordable health care has CAAMWU finding a strong union ally in Teamster Local 175 representing Cummings workers in manufacturing facilities in the state of West Virginia. The initial focus was in organizing joint meetings to further educate and involve key member activists in both organizations to assist in developing a joint “Fight Back Plan.” Simultaneous deeper research has revealed what appears to be collusion of even more companies with the Chamber of Commerce to expand the number of workers being financially devastated by these plans. Workers at the organized “Worker Speak Out “ actions began calling the plans “NO-Surance” Health Care Coverage; sharing one emotional narrative after another of not being able to take their children or significant others much less themselves for doctors’ visits because they simply could not afford to despite the fact of having health care coverage.

Looking forward, the “Fight Back” involves more expansive agitation regarding “Health Care as A Human Right,” tying the current struggle to the broader fight for “Single Payer Health Care” and specific updated support for the new Health Care Legislation, “Medicare for All” bill, sponsored by Bernie Sanders. Major multi- state coordinated actions are being planned to take place on December 10, 2017. International Human Rights Day.

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