85,000 Kaiser Permanente workers threaten to strike

More than 85,000 Kaiser Permanente workers are preparing to strike as contract negotiations broke off without an agreement, the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions announced Friday.

The workers, who are from multiple unions in California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Maryland, Virginia, Hawaii and the District of Columbia, said they will call the strike unless Kaiser bargains in good faith and ultimately mends the worker-management partnership; ensures safe staffing and appropriate use of technology; and provides wages and benefits that can support families. The union is also calling for more financial transparency.

“This is a non-profit company that has lost its way and is acting more like a typical for-profit corporation, where only a few at the top truly thrive,” Ida Prophet, a licensed vocational nurse at Kaiser South Sacramento in California, said in prepared remarks.

Kaiser Permanente said in a statement that the SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West mischaracterized the negotiations, which Kaiser Permanente said have found common ground around workforce planning, revitalizing employee and manager training, improving performance outcomes, strengthening the problem-solving process and eliminating workplace injuries.

“Kaiser Permanente continues to strongly believe in the tremendous value of our long-standing and highly successful partnership. By working in partnership with the unions that represent our employees, we will continue to achieve the best results for our members, patients, and the communities who depend on us to provide high-quality, affordable healthcare—and help to keep Kaiser Permanente a great place to work. We look forward to reaching a fair and equitable agreement in the near future.”

Unions and health systems often clash, particularly in states like California that boast vast union membership and some of the most pro-worker labor laws in the country, as workers lobby for better pay and working conditions. Persistent workforce challenges can give unions leverage at the negotiating table in a state with strict minimum ratios for nurse-to-patient staffing.

The coalition and its affiliates have been entrenched in a protracted dispute with Kaiser. The SEIU-UHW launched a prospective ballot initiative that would’ve limited how much Kaiser’s health insurance arm could raise premiums, but was withdrawn.

As political escalations mounted, nearly two dozen union locals formed the new Alliance of Health Care Unions representing 45,000 Kaiser employees and split from the long-standing coalition. The alliance then negotiated with the health system last May for a new labor-management agreement, which they signed off on in November.

But Kaiser left the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions out of these talks, provoking an immediate complaint from the group. The SEIU-UHW contract expires in October.

In addition, around 4,000 Kaiser mental health clinicians and other healthcare professionals across more than 100 California hospitals and clinics went on strike in December seeking higher wages and benefits as well as higher staffing levels. It’s a long-standing conflict between the health system and the National Union of Healthcare Workers, which also held a weeklong strike in 2015 during contract negotiations.

State regulators fined Kaiser $4 million in 2013 over problems that delayed patient access to mental healthcare and has since run into similar issues.

On the transparency front, the SEIU-UHW has pushed for a bill that would boost Kaiser’s public disclosure requirements for executives’ deferred compensation. California’s Senate Judiciary Committee passed the bill earlier this week.

Kaiser said in a statement that the union’s claims are “flat out wrong” and it is “misusing the legislative process to try to influence contract bargaining.”

“Kaiser is one of the largest healthcare providers and insurers in the nation, but in many places it has gotten exemptions from the kind of reporting requirements that other health-related corporations must follow,” Walter Allen, executive director of the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions, said in prepared remarks.