HEALTH care is proving to be a two-edged sword in American labor relations. At the bargaining table, it is sharply dividing labor and management. The skyrocketing costs of health-care benefits have been at the center of several recent strikes, such as NYNEX and Pittston Coal Group.
``It's the hottest pocketbook issue of the 1990s,'' says pollster Geoffrey Garin, president of Garin-Hart Strategic Research Group. ``People don't necessarily mention it at the top of their list. But as soon as you ask about the affordability of health care, it's like you set off a fire alarm.''
At the policymaking level, however, unions and businesses are starting to draw similar conclusions. Government has to provide some kind of help.
``We see eye to eye on what the problems are,'' says Sharon Canner, assistant vice president of industrial relations for the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). Business is not supporting a totally regulated system, she says, but is looking for the federal government to reform aspects of the problem and ease the burden. Ms. Canner says labor and business could develop a joint working committee on the problem in the future.
Labor, a longtime advocate of national health care, is also signaling its flexibility on the issue.
``We are open to discussions and negotiations,'' AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland said last week at the federation's executive council meeting here. ``We have not come forward with a detailed draft legislation for the particular reason that we believe that growing segments of our society, including many employers, are waking up to the fact that this is a problem that will require a comprehensive approach.''
The two groups face a simple problem: Employers' health-care costs are rising - up 29.6 percent between 1988 and '89, according to an NAM survey. So companies are trying to shift some of that increase onto their workers - with predictable results.
``Both sides are losing in the battle over health benefits,'' the Service Employees International Union concluded in a new report. ``Health-care cost inflation since 1987 has led to a dramatic breakdown in collective bargaining relations.''
Last year, for example, health benefits were a prime factor behind nearly 60 percent of major strikes in the United States, the union's report says. That was up from just 30 percent three years earlier. More dramatically, the union found that ``health care'' strikes in 1989 involved 78 percent of the work force, compared with only 18 percent in 1986.
Those strikes are costing a lot. The union found that the ``health care'' strikes last year cost the country more than $1.1 billion in lost wages.
``It's a giveback issue,'' says Audrey Freedman, a labor economist at the Conference Board, a New York-based business research group. ``In some ways it's the major issue in bargaining.''
Except for the wage concessions of the 1980s, this marks the first time that management is coming to the bargaining table with a specific demand, she adds. Privately, corporate executives are talking more and more about the need for some kind of national health-care system. And several of them could go public as early as this spring.
Some labor leaders and political analysts see the health-care issue as a way to bolster labor's image because health care is a problem of national concern.
``There's no question that costs are the major issue on people's minds in terms of health care,'' adds Edward Keller, executive vice president of the Roper Organization. But it is one of many concerns, he adds. ``I think there's an opportunity for labor to take a national leadership position on a lot of those issues.''
The trouble is that unions probably won't be able to use the issue to polish up their image.
``I am sure that there will be some kind of national health-care plan,'' says Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers union. ``But whether that will have any impact on the image of the labor movement, I don't know. I doubt it.''