What a Young Reporter Learned from the UAW

Lessons about health care and other matters

There was a poignancy to Paul Solman’s News Hour interview Thursday with Ron Gettelfinger, the president of the United Auto Workers. Sadness and resignation, too. Here on their knees were the once mighty GM and its once mighty union, at one time the best examples of what corporate America and the American labor movement had to offer. GM’s union workforce—460,000 strong in 1979—has now shrunk to 60,000 employees, and the auto industry’s financial troubles don’t bode well for the future. Solman made it seem like Gettelfinger was presiding over a union wake.

While the interview was fair, Solman did mention the widely held belief that union members are bad guys—a common press angle since the days of Ronald Reagan, who made a sport of showing that unions were an American problem. In Solman’s telling, skeptics believe that union members “[have] been making out like bandits for years.” To which Gettelfinger replied: “I can show you…UAW retirees that worked thirty, forty years in a plant. Their pension may be in the neighborhood of $260 to $300, $400, $500 a month, plus what they get in Social Security. Is that making out like a bandit?”

The point was that the UAW tried to ensure its workers’ economic security not just during employment, but also when they retired—at a time when poverty among the elderly was rampant. The UAW was just as interested in how its members spent their money as in how they earned it. And that’s where I came in as a cub reporter for the Detroit Free Press, charged with inventing the consumer beat. I soon learned that the UAW was a font of consumer information that warned members about the myriad marketplace traps.

I loved to visit “Solid House” out on Jefferson Ave., where I would meet with people who knew a lot more than I did about most things—health care, Social Security, hunger and poverty among the elderly, the perils and pleasures of credit cards, which had just emerged as a new shopping tool. These were themes that shaped my reporting over the years. In those days, newspapers allowed reporters the luxury to educate themselves and thoroughly learn their beats—a rare opportunity for young reporters working in any media outlet today. I took full advantage of it, and the UAW became one of my tutors.

Mel Glasser, a social worker by training, ran the Social Security department, and it was from Glasser that I learned about social insurance—that concept taken for granted by other countries as part of their national fabric, but derided as “welfare” by entitlement-wary Americans. Glasser told me why we needed national health insurance and why, in its absence, the union bargained for better health benefits so its members would not be bankrupted by medical bills. He explained about the gold-standard major medical policies that gave workers comprehensive coverage long before HMOs limited care; long before today’s growing crop of high-deductible plans that will leave people vulnerable to large medical bills.

He taught me why the union fought for Social Security cost-of-living adjustments that, when eventually enacted, lifted old people out of poverty. His lessons on the arcane bend points and primary insurance amounts in the Social Security formula were tough to follow. But he made sure that I knew that Social Security struck a balance between needs and contributions. Under the program, lower-paid workers got a greater percentage of their pre-retirement income than those with higher wages, although higher-paid employees got larger benefits. It wasn’t until years later that I had a chance to write about all that, but the basics stuck in my brain.

I learned from the UAW that decent wages and health benefits made it possible for workers’ families to eat meat loaf on Monday, pork chops on Wednesday, beef roasts on Sunday, and steak now and then. Once I wrote a series about how families on different rungs of the income ladder spent their money. I interviewed a Ford worker who lived in a modest bungalow in one of Detroit’s downriver suburbs. He was taking night classes, hoping to become a foreman someday—a route up in the union hierarchy. The family ate meat almost every night. Too often, I thought; besides, they could save money by eating rice and beans. Then someone at the union told me it was not my place to judge—that meat represented security to that worker and his family, and that was how he provided for them. I had to understand more and see the whole picture before making such flip judgments. Good training for any reporter.

From Mildred Jeffrey, a labor, civil rights, and women’s rights activist who received a Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Clinton a few years before she died in 2004, I saw that women could be strong advocates for the disenfranchised—as well as strong reporters, at a time when newsrooms hired few women to write about things other than food and fashion. Jeffrey passionately believed in democracy and the political process, and understood journalism’s role in safeguarding both.

Once, when I returned from a vacation, Jeffrey, who headed the union’s consumer affairs activities, asked me if I had come back refreshed and ready to do battle exposing the forces of evil in the Michigan legislature. By that she meant the bank lobbyists who had bottled up a bill that would have allowed women to have credit in their own names, not their husbands’—as well as other bills that would have given consumers relief from onerous credit contracts. She and the UAW were ready to fight for these bills because they dealt with serious inequities in the credit marketplace, and consumers needed a voice. Union reps would meet workers in their union halls across the country, warning against usurious loans and demonstrating how to shop for credit using the annual percentage rate. I reported on these meetings and passed along the consumer advice to wider audiences.

People still need health care and insurance that covers them throughout their lives, protection from unscrupulous credit sellers, advocates to work on their behalf, and journalists to explain the complexities of weird mortgage instruments, credit cards with hidden fees, flimsy insurance policies, and how Social Security works—without the self-serving rhetoric from those out to destroy it. And newbies to journalism need tutors more than ever.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.