By Don McIntosh
Is Kaiser Permanente’s reputation as an industry-leading model union employer about to end? Maybe, judging by an Aug. 5 union contract bargaining session, in which management proposed to pay future new hires dramatically lower wages.
The Alliance of Healthcare Unions, a 21-union coalition representing 52,000 Kaiser employees in eight states, is calling it the worst proposal from management in the 20-year history of Kaiser’s labor-management partnership.
The partnership is supposed to be about collaboration, joint problem solving and mutual respect. But a “two tier” wage system like the one Kaiser proposed is straight out of the union-busting playbook because it divides workers and teaches them that their unions are weak. It violates the bedrock union principle of equal pay for equal work. And it destroys union member morale. Paid less, new hires come to resent more senior coworkers for having sold them out before they arrived. As time passes, those new hires eventually become the majority of the union bargaining unit.
“We are stunned by Kaiser’s offer,” said Kaiser Permanente RN Jodi Barschow, president of Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals (OFNHP) in an Aug. 11 press statement. OFNHP represents about 4,000 Kaiser nurses, health techs, and physician assistants in Oregon. “After what we have been through these past few years, this is insulting to both to our healthcare workers and the communities who rely on them for care.”
Lower pay for new hires wouldn’t just be deeply unfair, but Barschow said it would also hurt Kaiser’s ability to recruit and retain new staff — during a severe nationwide healthcare worker staffing crisis that is already diminishing patient care.
“Do you know what’s going on in this country right now? Do you know what’s going on in your own facilities?” said Alliance of Healthcare Unions executive director Hal Ruddick in a bargaining update for union members. “We’re facing a staffing crisis, a devastating surge, and a worker shortage that is increasing every day.… And after making $2.2 billion in operating profit last year, you want to pay even less to new hires? It’s absurd and irresponsible to think that the solution to staffing shortages is to lower wages and benefits for future workers.”
The two sides are scheduled to meet for further negotiations in late August and Sept. 10, but time is running out before many of the contracts expire on Oct. 1. At that point, workers would be allowed to strike after giving 10 days notice.
SOLIDARITY: OFNHP is holding a “Rally to Save Lives” Sept. 28, 6 to 7:30 p.m., outside Kaiser’s Portland headquarters, 500 NE Multnomah Street.