Union President Accuses Pete Buttigieg of 'Perpetuating This Gross Myth' About Union Health Care: 'This Is Offensive'

Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants, strongly criticized Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg on Wednesday, arguing that he was perpetuating a "gross myth" about union workers' health care.

The union president, who represents about 50,000 members nationwide, has previously voiced support for Senator Bernie Sanders and his signature Medicare for All proposal. Nelson took issue with a tweet posted by Buttigieg on Wednesday morning that suggested Sanders' health care policy ideas would harm union workers.

"There are 14 million union workers in America who have fought hard for strong, employer-provided health benefits. Medicare for All Who Want It protects their plans and union members' freedom to choose the coverage that's best for them," the former South Bend, Indiana, mayor wrote.

But Nelson quickly responded, retweeting the post and arguing that Buttigieg's assessment was misleading.

"This is offensive and dangerous. Stop perpetuating this gross myth. Not every union member has union healthcare plans that protect them. Those that do have it, have to fight like hell to keep it. If you believe in Labor then you'd understand an injury to one is an injury to all," the union president wrote.

"For profit healthcare doesn't work, @PeteButtigieg. It's killing people & putting working people in financial ruin. The whole country knows it," she added in a follow-up tweet. "Collective bargaining is about problem solving. Don't use unions to promote division - that's only good for the profiteers."

A spokesperson for Buttigieg's campaign referred Newsweek to comments made by the candidate during an MSNBC interview on Wednesday morning.

"Nevada is a good example of a place where there is, there are a lot of union workers who sometimes gave concessions on wages in order to get excellent plans," Buttigieg said. "I'm thinking about culinary workers, for example. A lot of folks across the AFL-CIO who are prioritizing health care as an issue, and they are not interested in Senator Sanders' vision of eliminating all private plans because they actually got and fought for good health care coverage that they have right now."

Last August, Nelson asserted in an interview with Hill.TV that Medicare for All enjoyed "broad support" within the union community. "This is really something that is very unifying for union members across the country and for all the people that they care about who are not union members and don't have access to the same health care," she said.

Nelson also noted that companies have regularly been coming to union leaders to say they can no longer afford the rising cost of health care, and that many unions have been forced to negotiate cuts in coverage. "The discussion is always around how are we going to minimize the damage of it being eroded," she said.

"@BernieSanders knows we have to ensure healthcare is reformed to provide care for all - otherwise we're all lost," Nelson tweeted last July during the second round of Democratic debates.

The Sanders campaign has regularly touted its growing list of national, state-level and local union endorsements. On the national level, the campaign has been formally backed by the American Postal Workers Union, National Nurses United, National Union of Healthcare Workers (which has co-endorsed Senator Elizabeth Warren) and the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America.

Pete Buttigieg
Pete Buttigieg speaks at his primary night watch party on February 11 in Nashua, New Hampshire. Win McNamee/Getty

While Buttigieg has campaigned on strong support for labor protections and bolstering unions—as have Sanders, Warren and former Vice President Joe Biden—the former mayor has struggled to gain endorsements from unions. Buttigieg's tweet and comments to MSNBC appear intended to capitalize on criticism of Sanders' Medicare for All proposal from Nevada's Culinary Workers Union ahead of the state's caucuses on February 22.

As Sanders celebrated his win in the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday evening, the Nevada union, which represents about 60,000 workers, launched a campaign of physical flyers, emails and texts saying that the senator wanted to "end" union health care.

Many union members nationwide have raised concerns that Sanders' plan, saying it would do away with health care benefits that they've won through significant negotiating efforts. But some analysts and union leaders have concluded that a Medicare for All system would actually provide better health care for most union workers across the country.

Buttigieg has proposed creating a Medicare for All system that would allow people to choose a government-run insurance plan. At the same time, they could keep their private insurance instead. But Buttigieg's critics argue that such a system would undermine serious health care reform because private insurance companies would remain influential.

Bernie Sanders
Senator Bernie Sanders discusses Medicare for All legislation on Capitol Hill on September 13, 2017. JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty

Notably, Sanders' health care plan would not "end" insurance benefits for anyone. It instead calls for transitioning all Americans to universal, government-backed insurance that, the candidate argues, would do away with deductibles and copayments while also expanding covered treatment.

Sanders and Buttigieg have emerged as the early front-runners for the Democratic party's nomination. While the results of Iowa's caucuses have not been finalized, Buttigieg appears to have narrowly won by two "state delegate equivalents," or about 0.1 percent. But Sanders won the state's popular vote by more than 2,600 votes, and both contenders have declared victory. In New Hampshire on Tuesday, Sanders was the clear winner, but Buttigieg had a very close second-place finish.

Nationwide, Sanders is now leading in most national polls. Buttigieg, however, is still polling relatively low, in fourth or fifth place in most surveys. Both candidates hope for a strong finish in Nevada later this month to bolster their front-runner status, but recent polls suggest the race will be between Sanders and Biden in that state, where Buttigieg is polling fourth or fifth.