California union members back strike against Kaiser Permanente; 5 other states still voting

The Service Employees International Union–United Healthcare Workers West said Monday that thousands of California workers in its Kaiser Permanente unit have voted overwhelmingly to support a strike against their employer in early October.

More than 80,000 workers in California, Colorado, Maryland, Oregon, Virginia, Washington and the District of Columbia will have the opportunity to vote through September on whether to authorize the strike. The workers are members of 11 unions that make up the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions.

In California, SEIU-UHW reported, about two-thirds of its Kaiser members cast votes. More than 37,000 voted to authorize the strike, 867 opposed it and roughly 19,000 did not vote.

“It’s time for this corporation to get back on track and live up to its mission to help patients, workers and communities thrive,” said Heather Wright, a women’s health clerk at Kaiser Permanente in Santa Clara, in a prepared news release. “This strike vote is about stopping Kaiser’s unfair labor practices.”

Kaiser’s John Nelson, vice president of communications, said SEIU-UHW leaders misled workers in the ballot language, telling them that if they voted no, they were agreeing to “a contract that increases our medical costs, cuts our pensions and retiree medical benefits, offers lower pay scales and raises that are less for Oregon and Washington than California.”

Kaiser pays 23 percent above market wages, Nelson said, and the union wants wage increases that would drive that up to 32 percent above market wages.

“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,” Nelson stated in a news release. “At a time when we are working hard to keep our care affordable, the Coalition’s demands are not fair to our members and the communities we serve.”

The company has offered wage increases of 3 percent a year in California through 2022, Kaiser officials said, and the company has worked with coalition leadership to create a $40 million workforce development fund. It would pay for on-the-job training that culminates with an employment offer.

If union members authorize the walkout, it would be the nation’s largest strike since the Teamsters’ walkout at United Parcel Service in 1997.

The Kaiser coalition of unions got its start in the 1990s when, led by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, 26 unions then representing 57,000 Kaiser workers agreed to bargain together to use the interest-based bargaining approach to end workforce reductions and other cost-cutting measures that had led to repeated strikes. Those labor actions and increasing competition from for-profit health providers had threatened to derail Kaiserat the time, the coalition said in its history of the organization.

Kaiser’s Dennis Dabney, senior vice president for national labor relations, told The Bee that Kaiser continues to believe in the longstanding value of its partnership. However, in complaints over unfair labor practices to the NLRB, union leaders have questioned whether that’s true.

The Kaiser coalition’s leaders are calling this an unfair labor practices strike because they have made several complaints with the National Labor Relations Board, including one that alleges Kaiser has failed to bargain in good faith. The NLRB enforces laws governing collective bargaining and labor practices.

In one complaint, SEIU-UHW and other coalition unions state that Kaiser’s management had refused to bargain until the coalition signs a revised partnership agreement that imposes a number of restrictive terms. For instance, the complaint noted, a conduct provision in the document prohibits any party in the coalition from calling, participating in or sanctioning any sympathy strike. Common among labor unions, sympathy strikes occur when one union wants to support a strike organized by a union representing co-workers.

Follow more of our reporting on Health Care Workers

See all 10 stories
Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune

Cathie Anderson covers health care for The Bee. Growing up, her blue-collar parents paid out of pocket for care. She joined The Bee in 2002, with roles including business columnist and features editor. She previously worked at papers including the Dallas Morning News, Detroit News and Austin American-Statesman.