Kaiser Permanente's California Workers Vote to Authorize Strike

Ken Terry

August 13, 2019

UPDATED August 14, 2019 // Most of Kaiser Permanente's unionized workers in California have voted to strike against the huge not-for-profit health system, the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions (CKPU) announced on August 12.

Strike authorization votes among other groups of Kaiser workers in California, as well as Kaiser Permanente employees in Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia, will run through mid-September.

The strike, if it occurs, would start in early October. It would be the nation's largest since 1997, according to the CKPU, an umbrella organization that represents the workers in negotiations with Kaiser. Service Employees International Union–United Healthcare Workers West and the 10 other unions in the coalition together represent more than 80,000 Kaiser employees, including 55,000 in California.

In the recently concluded strike vote, more than 37,000 workers cast ballots in support of a strike (98%), while only 867 voted to oppose it (2%). About two thirds of the union members cast ballots. Four local unions in California have not finished voting yet.

The workers represented by the unions include healthcare professionals and others who provide the support services for Kaiser Permanente's 39 hospitals and other facilities. The unions include some nurses as well as a broad range of support personnel, including social workers, occupational therapists, information technology workers, laundry service and room cleaning staff, surgical technicians, and food professionals.

The Kaiser employees have been without a contract since September 2018. Union talks with Kaiser broke off on July 11, and no new discussions have been scheduled.

Record Profits

Among the major sticking points in CKPU's negotiations with Kaiser are the company's planned outsourcing of hundreds of jobs, its reported plans to use robots in some hospitals, and its stated intention to reduce wages for new hires and lower raises for established workers in some states.

When CKPU threatened to strike in July, Kaiser told Medscape Medical News that robots had not replaced any employees and that it was adding jobs overall. In its statement, the company pointed out that in some areas of the country, its workers are overpaid, because the prevailing wage structure is lower in those regions.

The unions argue that Kaiser can well afford to continue paying wages at the levels that current employees are receiving. In the second quarter of this year, they point out, Kaiser had profits of $2 billion, and it has earned a record $5.2 billion since January 2019.

"Kaiser Permanente is sucking billions from our communities at the same time it pays at least 36 executives a million dollars a year, its CEO $16 million a year, and sits on more than $35 billion in reserves," said Maria Aguilar, a housekeeper at Kaiser Permanente in Los Angeles, in a CKPU news release. "Then, in response to our upcoming unfair labor practice strike, the corporation says publicly that Kaiser housekeepers making $44,000 a year to clean and sanitize a hospital make too much. Something is way out of whack."

In a statement provided to Medscape Medical News, John Nelson, vice president of communications for Kaiser Permanente, said the organization 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. Contrary to the union's claims, there are no pay cuts and no changes to our employees' defined benefit, under our proposal."

Nelson added, "Coalition-represented employees are already compensated 23% above market rates.... The Coalition's proposal would actually increase our wages on average 32% above the market over the next five years, adding a billion dollars to our labor costs."

Kaiser's proposal, in contrast, would provide 3% annual wage increases through 2022 for employees in northern and southern California, Nelson said.

In addition, he noted, Kaiser and the CKPU are proposing a $40 million Workforce Development Fund and the creation of new-hire training positions to help address the shortage of healthcare workers.

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