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Alan Zemek

Common Currency: Health care defines 'aristocrats,' have-nots

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The word aristocracy comes to us from the Greek words "aristos", meaning excellent, and "kratos," meaning power. As a definition of a system that provides privilege and entitle- ment to its members based on class rather than by merit, the roots of its meaning are both appropriate and evocative; an aristocrat is someone who has "excellent power."

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So, here is a provocative statement: If you know what the words "defined benefit" mean, or your work place engages in collective bargaining on your behalf, or you belong to a public labor union, you are an aristocrat. You belong to a privileged and entitled class that has all the attributes of "excellent power."

Before you start hyperventilating, please consider that this is not meant to be pejorative, but merely an observation of how drastically the landscape of labor relations in this country have changed since 1960. In 1935, the year the National Labor Relations Act became law, 15 percent of the American labor force was represented by a union. Labor union membership climbed steadily and accelerated during the heydays of the American auto industry and the "pattern bargain agreements" of the 1950s.

In 1960 private sector union membership peaked at almost half the labor force. Today, private sector labor union membership has fallen to 9 percent of the labor force, about where it was in 1909 when Theodore Roosevelt was President.

Today, more likely than not, if your wages and benefits are protected by a collective bargaining agree- ment, the odds are you are a public school teacher or you belong to a public employees union.

Again, this is not intended as a criticism, just a statement of probability. And perhaps a reminder that, while your services are valuable and essential, you do belong to a fairly exclusive club.

If do you happen to be a public school teacher or public employee, and you feel maligned, misunderstood, under appreciated and over worked, well, welcome to the club.

Most folks in the private sector have felt that way for years. Just ask any retired auto worker how they feel about the collapse of their pension and health care benefits as the auto industry struggled to shed the legacy costs of unsustainable labor contracts until the entire industry collapsed completely in the financial crisis of 2008-09.

Attitudes about unions are influenced greatly by personal experiences. And there are strong data correlations between standards of living and union representation that suggest the decline of organized labor has been a disaster for the middle class, so please do not take me for an anti-union blow hard.

On the other hand, if you complain to someone who works in the private sector that your public employee health care plan raised your doctor visit co-pay from $25 to $50, you are unlikely to get much sympathy. They might even laugh out loud: "What health care plan?"

For the most part, the employer based health care plan and the defined benefit pension as we once knew them are 20th Century anachronisms that were created for the extreme and dire circumstances of the Great Depression years of the 1930s as a social bargain to save the country from total collapse.

Unrivaled pre-eminence in manufacturing and the GI Bill that educated an entire generation of returning veterans of World War II made the American economy the productive envy of the world, and extended that social bargain into the late 1950s, and early 1960s. But by the time I was born towards the tail end of the baby boom, that model was already starting to crack, and by the time my daughter was born in 1987, it was starting to break down. Today healthcare finance has devolved into an incomprehensible Alice-in-Wonderland world of cost shifting and defensive processes. Something has to give.

The election is over and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act is the law of the land. I expect it will make things both better and worse, and undoubtedly it will have consequences both intended and not.

Every day 10,000 baby boomers turn 65, so either way we will be grappling with tough choices for health care finance for a generation to come. In the meantime, if you have a good employer-provided health care plan protected by a collective bargaining agreement, consider yourself an aristocrat.

Alan J. Zemek is a Park Rapids area developer and author of "Generation Busted: How America Went Broke in the Age of Prosperity." You can follow his blog, or comment on this article on his website, www.genera tionbusted.com.

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