Health & Medicine

Kaiser Permanente reaches tentative deal with unions, averting October strike

Kaiser Permanente announced Wednesday that it has reached a tentative four-year contract agreement with a coalition of three of its unions, averting an October strike by more than 80,000 workers.

“We greatly respect and value our employees who deliver on our mission every day,” said Arlene Peasnall, interim chief human resources officer, Kaiser Permanente Health Plan and Hospitals. “This agreement is a testament to the dedication, compassion and skill those employees bring to work every day and demonstrates that Kaiser Permanente and the Coalition have a shared commitment to affordability for our members.”

As part of the tentative agreement, the nonprofit health care giant will provide members of the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions with annual pay increases of percent — 3 percent a year for workers in California — and create a program to reduce the national shortage of health care workers.

The unions also had sought concessions on outsourcing, and Kaiser agreed to a list of jobs that will not be outsourced over the life of the contract. Labor relations expert Rebecca Kolins Givan said that, although the coalition had a number of victories with this contract, the terms on outsourcing are perhaps the biggest win.

“Outsourcing...tends to be the way that employers degrade the quality of the work, move work outside the bargaining unit to workers who don’t have the same protections and wages,” said Givan, an associate professor at the Center for Work and Health at New Jersey’s Rutgers University. “I think protecting against subcontracting is actually a really significant win, especially given how health-care employers tend to operate in the current landscape.”

This contract negotiation was a big test for a much smaller coalition of unions. The group had 12 international unions just before bargaining kicked off last year, but nine unions left after a disagreement over what the bargaining strategy should be. The remaining three coalition unions followed through on plans to advocate legislation, and at one time a ballot initiative, that Kaiser leaders described as a coordinated campaign to leverage power at the bargaining table. Union officials said the measures would bring greater transparency and force Kaiser to invest more in patient care.

And, earlier this month, the coalition, comprising members in California, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, announced a seven-day strike scheduled to begin Oct. 14.

Givan said it’s not unusual for unions to try to call upon political partners to push employers to make a deal, but she said the use of ballot initiatives and legislation is new and it’s unknown whether those tactics are as useful in swaying management. Ultimately, she said that she believed the strike, not the legislation, was the greatest threat to Kaiser’s ongoing business operations.

“By getting a strong contract by using the threat of the strike but without having to go on strike, the (remaining) unions in the coalition have shown that they’re strong enough to act collectively and to really push the employer to give them a strong contract, even with the coalition being somewhat fractured,” Givan said.

In the news release from the coalition, Georgette Bradford, an ultrasound technologist at Kaiser’s Point West Medical Offices in Sacramento, stated: “This agreement will allow us to rebuild the worker-management partnership that has been so important to all of us in making Kaiser successful over the last 20 years. Reaching an agreement was not easy. It had lots of twists and turns, but in the end we accomplished what we set out to do – reach an agreement that is good for patients, workers and our communities.”

Through the worker training program, Kaiser employees will have the opportunity to assume other positions once they have completed the necessary training, and they get a guarantee that they won’t make less money than they did in their previous position. Kaiser will provide roughly $130 million toward the fund over four years to allow coalition members to pursue educations.

Kaiser also agreed to appoint a committee that will look at integrating technology in ways that ensure cutting-edge tools don’t interfere with patients receiving personal care from caregivers.

“Kaiser Permanente has an unparalleled track record of working constructively with labor to solve problems together to improve the care and service offered to our members and patients,” Peasnall added. “We may disagree at times, but we have always been able to work through our challenges to align on common goals.”

If ratified by coalition members, the contract will take effect Oct. 1. The pay increases will vary, depending on where workers live. Coalition-represented workers in California, Oregon and southern Washington will get annual wage increases of 3 percent. In Colorado, Hawaii, Virginia, Maryland, the District of Columbia and the rest of Washington state, workers will see raises of 3 percent the first year and, in the last three years, a 2 percent pay increase plus a 1 percent lump sum. However, in those states, workers will have an opportunity to turn the lump sums into regular raises if the company hits certain financial performance benchmarks.

Roughly 57,000 of the coalition’s membership are represented by Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West. Other unions in the coalition are the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers and the Office & Professional Employees International Union.

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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.