By Don McIntosh
If no agreement is reached by Nov. 15, at least 32,000 Kaiser Permanente workers in Oregon and California will go on strike. The unions are Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals (OFNHP), UNAC/UHCP, and United Steelworkers Local 7600. On Nov. 4 they issued a 10-day strike notice as required for hospitals under federal law. Two other unions representing 8,000 workers in Hawaii and Georgia have have taken strike votes and could soon join them.
The move to strike comes as unions report no significant improvements to Kaiser Permanente’s bargaining proposals since several members of the 50,000-member 21 union coalition Alliance of Health Care Unions (AHCU) authorized a strike.
Bargaining has rarely been so contentious at Kaiser, which for decades touted itself as a union partner and model employer.
“This partnership is on the rocks,” said OFNHP bargaining team chair Joshua Holt, a staff nurse at Kaiser Westside Medical Center in Hillsboro.
In an open provocation to union members, Kaiser is pushing a “two-tier” scheme in which new hires would be paid as much as 25% less than current members. That’s considered a union-busting move because it would divide the workforce.
“This two tier proposal, in addition to being anti union, also exacerbates the staffing crisis,” Holt said. “What it does is make sure that we’re not going to be able to get applicants to fill jobs they’re going to post in the future.”
In addition, Kaiser is proposing wage increases of 1% a year at a moment when inflation is currently running 5.4%. OFNHP is proposing raises of 4% a year.
Kaiser also hasn’t agreed to improve nurse staffing levels, a key demand of OFNHP and other unions. Management’s counter-proposal would actually worsen staffing levels, Holt says. On Oct. 28, OFNHP bargaining team members presented management negotiators with 9,000 pages of nurse complaints about unsafe staffing levels. Union members have been documenting instances of short-staffing since their current contract began Oct. 1, 2018.
Holt says members have made it clear that adequate staffing and patient care are their priorities, not money, and “patients not profits” is emerging as a key slogan of the deepening dispute.
“Everything about our proposal is about trying to improve the staffing conditions so that patients can get the care that they need,” Holt said. “That’s what this fight is about.”
Kaiser has 12 million health plan members and is technically a non-profit. But it has amassed reserves of $44.5 billion, and reported a healthy $2.7 billion in net revenue since the coronavirus pandemic began.
Meanwhile, in what may be more evidence of ethical rot among Kaiser executives, the U.S. Justice Department filed allegations in federal court Oct. 25 that Kaiser Permanente units in California and Colorado defrauded Medicare by about $1 billion over a number of years — altering patient medical records to add diagnoses after the fact that either didn’t exist or were unrelated to patient visits, and billing Medicare for the fraudulent diagnoses.