Service Employees ratify contract, end 33-day Kaiser strike
PORTLAND, OR -- A 33-day strike at Kaiser Permanente health care facilities in Oregon and southwest Washington ended Oct. 6 after members of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 49 overwhelmingly ratified a union-endorsed two-year agreement.
But even though workers have returned to their jobs, Local 49 still seeks donations to food banks and to Labor's Community Service Agency, because employees won't see their first paychecks until the end of the month. During the height of the strike 500 food boxes a week were going to Local 49 members, said Rick Henson, financial secretary.
"Many people are still utilizing the services available," he said.
Henson said Kaiser lost possibly 10 percent of its Service Employees to other jobs. Some health care competitors recruited from picket lines, he said, offering strikers $2 to $3 an hour more in wages than they earned at Kaiser and fully-paid benefits.
Approximately 2,000 employees walked out Sept. 2. They held together for the duration of the strike, even rejecting a proposal midway through the dispute. Henson said members' solidarity on the picket line and the support of other union members statewide paid off for all unions with contracts at Kaiser.
"For once, we put a stop to Kaiser's pattern of bargaining for takeaways," he said. "This 10 percent number (for health care co-payments) that they have been stuck on is done. This strike forced Kaiser to come to grips with that."
A key sticking point in the strike was Kaiser's insistence that Local 49 members take the same 10 percent benefits cuts that other bargaining unit members, non-union staff and management personnel did. SEIU rejected that, pointing out that its members were some of the lowest-paid workers at Kaiser. The bargaining unit consists of couriers, janitors, assistant nurses, cooks, housekeepers, home health aides, receptionists and others. With the new agreement Kaiser will pick up all costs for health insurance premiums. The ratified contract calls for an immediate wage increase of 2 percent and a $100 signing bonus. Bargaining unit members will see another 2 percent pay hike on July 1, 1998. A team bonus plan based on corporate financial benchmarks remains in place, which could mean bonuses of up to 10 percent annually.
Union members also maintained their schedule for sick leave, vacations and holidays. Kaiser had wanted reductions in those areas. Prescription drugs will cost employees $3 instead of the $5 that Kaiser had demanded. Kaiser also agreed to start promoting a seldom-used mail-in prescription drug program that will save employees additional money.
Henson said the union also strengthened contract language for part-time employees. In the old contract part-time employees could put in 40 hours a week for years, and then suddenly have their hours reduced at the employer's discretion. In the new contract, if a part-time employee consistently puts in more than the typical 20 hours a week for one year then he or she can "upcode" to the level of hours they've been working -- if they want.
"If they don't want the extra hours they don't have to take them. It's at the employees' discretion," Henson said.
Current retirees will retain their fully-paid medical benefits, however, future retirees will begin contributing toward medical benefits, eventually reaching 30 percent of monthly premiums.
The agreement also contains amnesty language for all union workers, no matter what bargaining unit they belong to. One day during the strike a dozen nurses represented by the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Care Professionals walked off the job at Sunnyside Medical Center because they were upset with understaffing and the lack of skills of some scabs. The nurses gave notice that they would strike and no patients were left unattended. Henson said the two-year deal also puts Local 49 in better bargaining position with Kaiser because now the Service Employees will be first up for negotiations when the contract expires in 1999. SEIU is the largest bargaining unit at Kaiser in the Portland metropolitan area.
"The Service Employees represent half of Kaiser's unionized employees in the Pacific Northwest," Henson said. "We should be bargaining in front (of other unions) -- not at the end."
SEIU members actually had two contract proposals to choose from. Eight-five percent voted for the union-endorsed "A Plan," but they also had the option of voting for a Kaiser-supported "B Plan."
As part of the national partnership between the AFL-CIO and Kaiser Permanente, Local 49 agreed to let Kaiser present a four-year contract proposal that the HMO supported. The "B Plan" contained takeways that Local 49 did not support.
The Portland local also agreed to show a Kaiser videotape to union members prior to voting so Kaiser could explain its proposal.
"In the interest of relationship building and the national partnership, we agreed to let Kaiser do it," Henson said.
In the tape, Barbara West, a senior vice president, likened the strike to a family disagreement, explaining that all the employees were "part of the Kaiser family."
"The videotape was bad judgment on Kaiser's part," said Shelley Herochik, field coordinator for Local 49. "Our members didn't feel like part of any family after what Kaiser put them through."
The two contract proposals came from Oakland, where Peter diCicco, president of the national AFL-CIO's Industrial Union Department, and Betty Bednarczyk, secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union, came from Washington, D.C., to meet with principal officers of Kaiser Permanente in marathon bargaining Oct. 1-2. Prior to the Oct. 1 meeting in Oakland, the national union representatives met with Local 49's bargaining team to discuss the parameters for bringing back a tentative agreement to vote on.
© Oregon Labor Press Publishing Co. Inc.