Huge labor/management alliance introduced at Kaiser Permanente

PORTLAND, OR -- A proposed labor-management partnership that could reshape health maintenance organization patient care standards and workplace environments has been proposed by the national AFL-CIO and Kaiser Permanente.

Some 50,000 union members working at Kaiser will vote on the proposal in the next 60 days. If approved, it will be one of the largest labor-management partnerships ever, and the first national partnership in the health care industry.

More than 100 Portland area Kaiser employees listened to details of the proposal April 24 at the Hilton Hotel via a satellite video teleconference from Washington, D.C. The event was telecast to union members in Anaheim, Los Angeles, Oakland, San Diego, Denver, Hartford, Conn., and Cleveland.

Moderating for AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, AFL-CIO Industrial Union Department President Peter diCicco, and Kaiser Chief Operations Officer Dick Barnaby was Kathy Schmidt, president of the Portland-based Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Care Professionals Local 5017, which represents nurses at Kaiser Sunnyside.

"Today we begin a process we hope will turn the managed care industry on its head," Schmidt said.

"Our unions have come to this point because we are deeply concerned about an industry in which for-profit HMOs are driving down patient care standards and forcing Kaiser to compete with providers that see a dollar spent on patient care as a dollar diverted from profits." Barnaby, Sweeney and diCicco told Kaiser employees that the partnership -- which will be funded entirely by Kaiser -- will give workers greater job security along with unprecedented say in patient care and strategic and marketing decisions. Kaiser also pledges neutrality in any new organizing campaigns.

In return, the AFL-CIO would promote Kaiser's health care services as a union-endorsed health care provider of choice to the more than 40 million people covered by union-connected health insurance plans.

"This is an historic moment for Kaiser," said Barnaby, emphasizing that senior management of the HMO is committed in this endeavor. "This will be a difficult road but we are 100 percent committed to it."

After opening the teleconference to questions from Kaiser shop stewards and members, Barnaby was pressed to answer how he planned to pass "the commitment" onto supervisors and managers on a state-by-state basis.

"Let me make no bones about it," Barnaby responded. "If this partnership fails, then they have failed -- and they will not be able to work here any longer."

The proposal comes at a controversial time, with contract struggles under way in northern California and Denver. "I want to make it clear that we support the militant stances of our unions in Denver and Oakland and of the independent union of nurses," said Sweeney. "We moved ahead on presenting this proposal because it will not in any way interfere with our contracts or with the normal course of bargaining those contracts."

The partnership also won' turn back the clock on hospital closures and layoffs that have taken place in recent years, including the downsizing at Portland's Bess Kaiser and recent layoff notice at Sunnyside.

If approved, Kaiser and the unions will establish a committee of executives and union leaders to manage the partnership, as well as smaller labor-management committees state by state. Either side can give 60 days notice to end the partnership.

Kaiser Permanente serves 7.9 million members in 18 states. More than two million have union ties. It employs 90,000 persons, with roughly 55,000 covered under collective bargaining agreements with AFL-CIO-affiliated unions and another 10,000 with independent unions. In Oregon and southwest Washington, Local 5017 represents about 1,000 Kaiser nurses, SEIU Local 49 represents 2,000 workers, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555 represents some 600, Operating Engineers Local 701 has about 65 members and the independent Oregon Nurses Association (ONA) represents several hundred nurses. The Engineers and ONA are not in the partnership.


May 2, 1997 issue

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