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Securing Health Benefits During a Strike

By Heather Kerrigan | Jan 20, 2020

The recent walkout by General Motors (GM) workers raised a significant new issue for unions, members and companies: how to address benefits during a strike. Many unions have strike funds that can make up a portion of workers' pay, cover medical expenses and support other strike-induced hardships. However, the size of the union and the length of a strike can both hamper a union's ability to cover the cost of health expenses. Unions also have a responsibility to guide workers who may be unsure of whether they can access medical care, for how long and at what expense.

During negotiations with an employer, consider these concerns to determine whether the contract should place the onus for benefit coverage on the employer or union, as well as how your decision is spelled out in the agreement.

GM Ends, Reinstates Health Benefits 

When they walked off the job on September 16, the 48,000 GM workers did so without any guarantee that they would receive health benefits while on strike. A couple of days later, the United Auto Workers (UAW) announced that it had been notified by GM that employees would have to forfeit health insurance benefits during the strike. In turn, the union said it would help cover COBRA insurance costs for members or otherwise assist members with medical costs through the union's Strike and Defense Fund.

On September 26, GM announced that it would reinstate health insurance coverage for the hourly workers on strike, citing confusion among employees and health providers over whether they had coverage and who provided it. According to the company, benefits never lapsed during the early days of the strike.

Coverage of Health Insurance During a Strike

Collective bargaining agreements sometimes spell out who will be responsible for covering health insurance benefits during a strike. However, that agreement is not necessarily the final word, since labor law relies on oversight from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). In disputes over things like health insurance coverage, the NLRB interprets labor and contract law to determine how it applies. As the U.S. president chooses the members of the board and General Counsel, board decisions may be more susceptible to the politics of the current administration.

However, that is not always the case. In 2017, the NLRB ruled against Hawaiian Telecom, Inc. when it halted medical benefits for workers during a one-day strike. The majority determined that the workers had already accrued medical benefits. One dissenter, the acting chair, argued instead for a more targeted reading of the collective bargaining agreement, noting that once it was terminated at the time of the strike, any obligation the agreement had on the part of the employer ended.

Securing Health Insurance Coverage for Strikers 

The recent UAW strike raises questions about how a union should approach health benefits during a walkout. It is certainly ideal for the union to secure ongoing health insurance coverage for their members at the cost of the employer. This shows members that their membership is worthwhile and builds a stronger relationship between the union and its members. It may also help convince members to remain on strike. However, an employer may argue that such a clause doesn't reflect good faith on the part of the union, and that it deprives both the union and the employer of a bargaining chip. It is also entirely possible that the NLRB wouldn't uphold the provision of health care in a dispute. 

No matter the direction the union chooses, ensure that the organization has resources to clearly communicate benefits to members, especially if a strike is on the horizon. Alert members to the situation as early as possible so that they can financially prepare to cover more of their health insurance and stay up to date on where their coverage will come from.


Heather Kerrigan started her career in journalism at Governing magazine, reporting on state and local politics and policy, with a specific focus on public workforce, environment, health care, education and technology issues. Prior to co-founding River Horse Communications, Heather offered freelance editorial services to a variety of outlets, including SAGE Publications' Historic Documents series and The Kanter Journal. Heather is the author of the book Retire Rich With Your 401(k) Plan. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from The George Washington University.