As the debate over health care rages in Congress, producers should not be surprised that the nation's unions have taken a decided interest on the outcome. The unions' position on health care reform is nothing new, but the intensity of their support is at its highest level, says one expert.

Unions applauded the version of health care reform the House passed late last year, although their leaders expressed disappointment that the Senate passed a version without a public option just before Christmas.

Since Harry S. Truman was president, unions have pushed for the kind of universal health care now being debated. That push has grown considerably in the past year as unions face rising health care costs and decreasing membership.

The International Brotherhood of Teamsters in particular, which represents most unionized concrete production workers in the U.S., has been using all of its resources to advocate for a public option, a plan the U.S. government would provide.

In July 2009, the Teamsters started www.teamstersforhealthcarereformnow.org, and in late November the union asked its members to send a form letter to their senators, asking them to support reform legislation.

According to Michigan State University labor history professor John Revitte, the union is doing so to help drive down costs to unionized companies and possibly increase its own membership. And the Teamsters are advocating for a public option in the hope that it will bail out their struggling health care funds.

“Health care costs have become a bigger and bigger burden for the unions,” Revitte says, adding the costs have become nearly prohibitive for unionized companies. Examining the Teamsters' Central States Fund shows just how much of a burden health case costs have become.

TROUBLED FUND

The Central States Fund is a seriously troubled pension plan for almost 300,000 active, retired, and injured workers. In the past three months, the trustees of the fund have filed more than 15 lawsuits to try to recover more than $9 million they say the fund is owed. An attorney for the fund says that is not an especially large amount of lawsuits.

Most of the suits are against owners of companies that have closed their doors or withdrawn from the fund. Since 2007, Central States has been losing employers that contribute to the fund at a rate that nearly matches the precipitous decline in Teamsters membership.

For instance, last year, American Concrete Wall Inc. of Sterling Heights, Mich., closed its doors. In September, the Central States Southeast and Southwest Areas Pension Fund filed a claim against American Concrete Wall. The fund is demanding about $150,000 as a penalty for withdrawing.