Workers at California-based Kaiser Permanente are planning for a strike that could occur as soon as October 1, and if it happens, the strike could be the nation's largest since UPS workers walked off the job for more than two weeks in 1997.
More than 80,000 Kaiser Permanente employers are saying they may walk out of work next month. They include everyone from nurses and emergency medical technicians to respiratory therapists and other staff.
Three unions, representing workers in Washington, California, Oregon and Colorado, have already authorized the strike, and more could follow; according to Salon, four more unions, representing employees in Virginia, Maryland, California and Washington D.C., are expected to vote on the strike on September 22.
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Members of the Service Employees International Union Local 105, representing Kaiser workers in Colorado, were the latest to vote on the strike, with 62% casting a ballot and 96% of them voting yes.
At issue is what the unions call unfair labor practices, with Patricia Johnson-Gibson, a healthcare vice president at SEIU Local 105 in Denver, saying in a press release that Kaiser has shifted its practices to prioritize maximizing profits for executives rather than emphasizing patient care.
The union alleges that Kaiser has been automating and outsourcing union jobs, raising patient premiums, understaffing its facilities and attempting to reduce wages and benefits as it undergoes union contract negotiations.
SEIU Local 105 said it wants to negotiate an agreement with Kaiser that ensures safe staffing and the compassionate use of technology; builds a workforce that's equipped to projected shortages of licensed and accredited staff; and protects middle-class jobs with wages and benefits that can support families.
John Nelson, vice president of communications at Kaiser Permanente, told Healthcare Finance News that the threat of a strike is a bargaining tactic that misrepresents Kaiser's bargaining proposal.
"To be clear, Kaiser Permanente has presented a contract proposal that would provide annual pay increases that would keep our employees compensated higher than market averages and maintain excellent benefits," said Nelson. "Contrary to the union's claims, no current employee's defined benefit pension would be taken away, and employees who join in the future would receive market-leading defined contribution retirement benefits. Finally, the proposed partnership guidelines are based on mutual respect, and (union) leadership already agreed to a similar version in 2018."
Nelson added that Kaiser's proposed contract offer included wage increases, retirement security, career mobility and affordable healthcare.
WHAT'S THE IMPACT
The walkout is not set in stone, nor is the October 1 date. But the current contract runs out at the end of this month, and the threat of a strike gives the workers leverage ahead of further negotiations.
Kaiser workers have gained support from many elected officials and presidential aspirants, including Senators Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, as well as former Texas Representative Beto O'Rourke and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
While Kaiser Permanente is a nonprofit, it has reported profits of $11 billion since Jan. 1, 2017, including $5.2 billion just in the first half of 2019, according to the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions. In addition, it has amassed more than $37 billion in reserves and pays at least 36 executives more than $1 million annually.
THE LARGER TREND
While the strike is looming, workers already protested on September 2 in Oakland, California, the site of Kaiser Permanente's headquarters. After a 30-minute rally, the workers engaged in civil disobedience by blocking an intersection near Kaiser Permanente Medical Center.
Earlier this month, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law a bill that requires Kaiser Permanente to provide more data about the revenue and profits of individual hospitals, whereas now it lumps those figures for all facilities into two broad categories: "Northern California" and "Southern California." Of the roughly 400 hospitals operating in California, all but the 35 owned by Kaiser Permanente must comply with financial reporting requirements on a per-facility basis.
ON THE RECORD
"I am proud of our members for taking such a strong stand to bring Kaiser back to its core values of respecting its workforce, high-quality patient care, and re-establishing a world-class Partnership," said Ron Ruggiero, president of SEIU 105. "Doing so made Kaiser a world-class provider of quality care, enormously successful financially, and the envy of its competitors -- but Kaiser has lost its way over the last few years. This strike vote shows just how serious and determined our members are and I hope Kaiser will finally listen."
"Despite the union leadership's divisive tactics, we will continue to work toward a great new contract agreement that will benefit our employees and provide for a sustainable future as we continue work to make our high-quality, integrated model of care more affordable and accessible," said Nelson.