Health & Medicine

85,000 Kaiser workers ready strike in 7 states; health giant cites progress in contract talks

The leaders of 11 unions announced that contract talks stalled Thursday between Kaiser Permanente and 85,000 of its workers in California, six other states and the District of Columbia, all members of the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions.

Later this month, the 85,000 union members at roughly 50 facilities will begin voting by secret ballot whether to authorize a strike over unfair labor practices. Union leaders 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.

“While we have been providing care 24/7, holding the hands of sick and frightened patients and making sure they are safe and get the treatment they need, Kaiser has been focused on racking up multibillion-dollar profits and paying executives exorbitant, million-dollar salaries,” said Ida Prophet, a licensed vocational nurse at Kaiser’s South Sacramento Medical Center. “This is a nonprofit 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.”

The coalition’s bargaining teams have recommend that union members authorize a strike, essentially giving them the ability to call a strike when they see fit.

Kaiser’s Dennis Dabney, senior vice president for national labor relations, emailed a statement to The Sacramento Bee noting that Friday’s SEIU-UHW news release doesn’t represent what actually happened this week in bargaining.

“At the end of this week’s bargaining session, the parties agreed that management and union leaders will continue talking and working toward a mutually beneficial agreement,” Dabney said. “Throughout our conversations – including those yesterday – there has been a great deal of common ground around several major issues, including workforce planning, revitalizing employee and manager training and education, improving performance outcomes, strengthening issue resolution and problem-solving processes, eliminating workplace injuries and collaborative work to forecast the care needs of our patients in the future.”

Coalition leaders say they have a number of objectives in negotiations. They include ensuring safe staffing, ensuring the company is building the workforce of the future to deal with major projected shortages of licensed and accredited staff, and protecting middle-class jobs with wages and benefits that can support families.

Dabney noted that Kaiser and the coalition have historically used “interest-based bargaining” where they seek mutually beneficial solutions.

“Interest-based bargaining doesn’t mean participants don’t have differing views, or conversations aren’t at times tense,” Dabney said. “But as a case in point, after yesterday’s remarks by labor and management leaders as the session concluded, there was a round of applause from the participants, acknowledging the ongoing bargaining efforts.”

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 provoked repeated strikes. Those labor actions and increasing competition from for-profit health providers had threatened to derail Kaiser at the time, the coalition said in its history of the organization.

Dabney said 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.

One such complaint will go to a hearing before the NLRB on Aug. 20, said Steve Trossman, a spokesperson for Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West. SEIU-UHW, one of the nation’s largest unions of hospital workers, represents workers ranging from licensed vocational nurses to radiology technologists, lab techs to housekeepers.

In the complaint, SEIU-UHW and other coalition unions state that Kaiser’s management had refused to bargain until the coalitions 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.

The company also added an expulsion provision to the partnership agreement, essentially stating that an individual coalition member can expel another coalition member by a vote of the senior union leadership.

The union’s complaint also alleged that, one day ahead of a March 27, 2018, kickoff event that highlighted the start of national bargaining, Kaiser abruptly canceled the event. The decision followed an announcement by 21 unions in the coalition that they were withdrawing their membership and establishing a new bargaining collective known as the Alliance of Health Care Unions.

While typically it takes seven to 12 weeks for the NLRB to render a decision, some cases can take longer, according to the agency’s website. Anywhere from 20,000 to 30,000 complaints, the agency stated, get lodged with the federal labor board each year by employees, employers and unions.

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