Union Set to Strike Against Seattle Health System

Ken Terry

January 22, 2020

A union representing 7800 employees of Swedish Health Services, a five-hospital organization in greater Seattle, said it will go on strike for a three-day period next week unless an agreement is reached between the two sides. Swedish has announced it will hire replacement workers to keep its facilities running during the January 28-30 strike.

This is the second strike threat against a West Coast-based healthcare organization within the past year. Kaiser Permanente faced a strike last October, but reached terms with a union coalition before that happened.

In Seattle, nurses and other caregivers represented by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Healthcare 1199NW said they would walk off their jobs next week "if proposals adequately addressing patient safety and staffing levels are not forthcoming."

The union's talks with Swedish broke down January 13 after 9 months of bargaining — supported near the end by a federal mediator — proved fruitless. Last Friday, the union issued the strike notification.

In its news release about the situation, the union referred to the healthcare system as Swedish-Providence. Swedish has been a division of Providence Health & Services, a multistate organization, since a 2012 merger.

According to the union, Providence, a $24 billion corporation, "has a corporate-wide strategy to cut benefits for workers…The corporation can afford to provide good benefits and wages to the nurses and healthcare workers it employs and should start treating its employees fairly. When employees of Providence are treated fairly, patient care and safety will improve."

The union also said that some of its members had been unlawfully terminated after raising alarms about "unsafe practices at Swedish-Providence."

According to the release, the union has presented management with "a robust package of proposals that lay out a roadmap for success in safe staffing, workplace safety, recruitment and retention, racial equity and inclusion for all, and providing for the needs of environmental service workers, social workers, counselors, and caregivers who provide standby and call."

Management View

In a press release from Swedish, the organization said it had offered the union a package that includes an 11.25% pay raise over 4 years, including a 3% raise retroactive to July 1, 2019, when the previous contract expired. This would raise the salaries of nurses, who now earn an average of $96,000 per year, to a six-figure amount, and other full-time caregivers would earn more than $70,000, Swedish said. The latter include technical, service, and professional staff.

However, the union is demanding a pay raise of 23% over 4 years, Swedish noted, and also wants full authority over staffing decisions. This provision "would go against state law and grant SEIU an authority that no other healthcare union has," Swedish pointed out.

"We acknowledge that staffing issues are important," said Margo Bykonen, chief nursing officer of Swedish. "We must work together to find long-term solutions to challenges such as recruiting enough nurses into the pipeline, retaining qualified staff and continuing to upskill our workforce."

The health system's proposal also pledged to give caregivers "a stronger voice in staffing decisions, recruitment efforts and creating a more inclusive and equitable workplace."

Swedish previously proposed the creation of a joint union-management task force to address staffing shortages by recruiting more caregivers. Currently, the release stated, Swedish has 900 open union-represented positions.

The shortage of healthcare professionals was also a major issue in the negotiations between Kaiser Permanente and its unions. In the final package hammered out by the two sides, Kaiser agreed to spend $130 million on training new hires and improving the skills of current workers so they could advance in their careers.

Recently, Kaiser and SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West established a new organization, Futuro Health, that will train allied healthcare workers for jobs in Kaiser facilities.

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