Andrea L. Kirby, Working Class Party candidate in 2022, spoke at the party's Michigan convention on November 19, 2023.
A recording and transcription of her speech are reproduced below.
Hello and good evening. I know it looks later than what it is. I always think evening because it looks like it's about eight o'clock outside now. But I'm so happy to be here with you guys.
I'm a Blue Cross worker. I'm currently on strike. On September 13th approximately 1,100 Blue Cross Blue Shield workers across the state of Michigan went on strike. This happened three days before the autos and weeks before the casinos. Although you wouldn't know it if you relied on the media. The strikes at the Big Three and later at the casinos overtook the coverage of our strike. But regardless of what the media says, workers at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan have been on strike now for 67 days.
Now, I would love to tell you that it's been all peaches and cream or unicorns and sprinkles, however you want to envision it, but it hasn't. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan workers were swept up in the momentum and optimism of a new UAW leadership that took office in March. This was the first administration that took office under the one member, one vote policy. This policy was said to be more democratic, but of the over 400,000 active UAW members and 580 retired members, less than 550 of them voted in the runoff for the international president. Most of the workers at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan were unaware of the elections or its candidates; but when it was all said and done, we did have a new leadership team and they presented a militant fighters' approach, which sounded like it was something new.
But that same excitement didn't stick around for long. It wasn't around when the Blue Cross strike started. Workers weren't prepared. The militant words of the International leadership didn't change how the Blue Cross Blue Shield strike was being handled. The 2023 Blue Cross strike started just like any of the other long-standing traditions of the strikes. Nothing was new. Workers did not make the decision to go on strike but they rather voted to authorize the International to call a strike. There were few or no meetings held, no solid information given out about the progress of bargaining until the final contract is presented to workers for approval. Workers are just assigned picket duties for several hours a week and that's the extent of their strike assignments.
Now this is a stark contrast to the first Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan strike that occurred in 1987, and even the one in 1993. In 1987, almost 4,000 Blue Cross workers went on strike for almost 12 weeks, 84 days. From the very first day of that strike, workers in Detroit organized daily meetings where strikers would come together to discuss to discuss problems of the strike, get information about bargaining, and decide on their activities on how to strengthen their strike. On the night the contract expired, over 900 employees got together to decide on what their last offer was going to be, and they decided how they were going to prepare to strike. The International representatives came to them and told them that they didn't need to do that, it wasn't even legal, but that didn't stop the workers. They met to elect a strike committee, they published a strike bulletin so everyone can know about the changes and everything going on at the same time, they organized activities to make signs and banners, get coffee, donuts, set up strike headquarters and so much more.
Workers faced opposition from the International apparatus who threw hurdles at the strikers any time they could. They initially told workers that they couldn't meet, they tried to close up the local, they threatened to freeze their strike wages, they also had personal attacks on the union president; but that didn't stop the workers. They continued to meet, they continued to organize and strike for what they wanted. So when the company came with their multiple final offers, workers already knew what they wanted and they sent it back. Now, these weren't easy decisions; workers were facing shutoffs, repossessions and other hardships, but they helped each other and they used resources that were available to them. In the end, the workers didn't get many gains, but they held the company back from all the concessions that they wanted to pass, which was a cut in sick time; they wanted bonuses and not wage increases; they even wanted to cut the long-term benefits by 50%.
Holding the company at bay was a win when you go up against corporate greed and a system that wants to squeeze as much out of its workers as it possibly can.
So over the years, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan leadership has continued its attacks. In 2005, we had a statewide membership of over 3,300 members. In 2015, it was down to 1,800, and now we're down to 1,100. Most of the union work has been outsourced to other companies, but a lot of it has been given to other non-union workers. In 2015, Blue Cross Blue Shield had one outsourced call center; today they have four. We all know it's not because of better service. A former Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan rep was quoted saying that they outsourced because "their price is attractive compared to our internal cost per call. It helps us reach our aggressive cost containment targets."
Now, that's not the first thing that Blue Cross did to reach their aggressive targets. Back in 2009, we were in a recession. Workers have bailed out the big three. Workers all over the country were facing concessions. Blue Cross Blue Shield said they lost 144.9 million in losses. They started a second-tier system where new hires were making eight to ten percent less than their peers and weren't given retiree benefits or a traditional pension. They also raised members' pensions, I mean members' premiums, but what they didn't do was cut executive pay. Blue Cross Blue Shield paid out 1.5 million to its 34 board executives, eight of which are union officials or auto executives. In a 2009 Free Press article, Blue Cross Blue Shield spokesman said that they had to "pay in order to attract and retain high quality board members. If you want something for nothing, you get what you pay for." Now, Blue Cross Blue Shield leaders also had no problem raising the compensation for our CEO over the years. From under a little under a million dollars when he got hired in 2006 to 3.8 in 2012, and 16.9 in 2022.
Now fast forward 36 years, Blue Cross is on strike again. Now this time a lot of things are different than in 1987. Strike authorization was taken four days before the expiration of our contract. Workers were told via text or email that they were on strike. We had no picket practice, we had no strike sign-up sheets, we had no information. Simply put, we were not organized. On the strike line, it hasn't changed much since day one. One or two other strikers have made their own personal signs. Most of our signs just say "UAW on strike". We've only had two meetings since we've gone on strike. On the day we went on strike, and the other one, November 1st, 49 days later. Workers have been in the dark. The meeting on November 1st gave us no bargaining updates. It gave us no instruction on how to conduct the strike line. Many workers that attended it said it was a waste of time, and it was. Workers have had no control over the strike.
What we are witnessing is what happens when people are not organized. When it comes to the fight at your front door and you are not organized, people are frustrated. They have unreasonable expectations. They attack each other. They can't remain focused on their goals.
Now, we don't know how the Blue Cross strike is going to turn out. Workers are smart. They have the ability to come together and accomplish a lot of great things. But this strike can teach us something before its conclusion. We can learn the importance of being organized before the fight comes to our door, which in this case is our next election. We cannot wait til spring or summer of next year to start talking about the need of the working class to have its own party, the Working Class Party. We cannot look for someone else to fight for what the working class needs, but the working class.
So as I conclude, I want to remind you of what the Blue Cross Blue Shield spokesman said. If you want something for nothing, you will get what you pay for. Ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, we will never get the satisfaction that we want if we don't sow into it. If we do not make the sacrifices for it. Otherwise, if we continue, we will get what we're paying for in our blood, sweat, and tears. Nothing if we don't stand for something. Thank you.