80,000 Kaiser Permanente Workers Plan October Nationwide Strike

A Kaiser Permanente building near its headquarters in Oakland, Calif. (Coolcaesar via Wikipedia)

(CN) – More than 80,000 Kaiser Permanente workers plan to walk off the job in the largest nationwide strike in more than two decades, as contract negotiations between unionized hospital workers and the health care giant hit an impasse.

Planned to begin Oct. 14, the seven-day strike is expected to be the largest since the Teamsters strike against United Parcel Service more than two decades ago.

Picket lines will be set up at Kaiser Permanente hospitals, medical office buildings and other facilities in California, Colorado, Washington state, Oregon, Maryland, Virginia and Washington D.C.

Many health care positions are affected by the strike including optometrists, clinical laboratory scientists, respiratory and X-ray technicians, licensed vocational nurses, certified nursing assistants, surgical technicians, pharmacy technicians, phlebotomists and medical assistants.

Housekeepers are also among the hundreds of positions affected.

Workers have been trying to negotiate a new national agreement after their contract expired Sept. 30, 2018. This past December, the National Labor Relations Board found Kaiser Permanente had failed to bargain in good faith.

In a statement, radiologic technologist Eric Jines said workers believe the strike is “the only way to ensure our patients get the best care.”

Jines added: “Our goal is to get Kaiser to stop committing unfair labor practices and get back on track as the best place to work and get care. There is no reason for Kaiser to let a strike happen when it has the resources to invest in patients, communities and workers.”

Workers say they want a contract that restores a worker-management partnership, ensures safe staffing and compassionate use of technology, builds the workforce to deal with a projected major shortage of health care workers and protects middle class jobs and benefits.

The strike is supported by politicians including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley of Oregon, 70 California legislators and 90 faith leaders, who issued a letter in support of workers.

Workers claim Kaiser – a nonprofit that has received $2.3 billion in tax breaks over the last two years – has “departed from its community-oriented mission by piling up record profits and reserves, making more than $11 billion since Jan. 1, 2017 and sitting on more than $37 billion in reserves.

Kaiser Permanente treats fewer low-income patients on Medicaid than its nonprofit health system peers, with 8% of its California patients receiving Medicaid compared to 27% of patients at other nonprofit health systems.

Just over 20% of Americans receive health coverage through Medicaid.

The health care nonprofit also increased its CEO Bernard Tyson’s pay by $6 million to $16 million in 2017, more than CEOs at for-profit corporations Starbucks, Coca-Cola and UPS. At the same time, Kaiser Permanente raised health insurance premiums by over 9% for individual plans and 4.7% for large-group plans this year, according to SEIU-UHW.

Tyson said in a statement Monday’s strike announcement came as Kaiser Permanente’s management team was engaged in negotiations.

“We are in this situation because of the aggressive approach of SEIU-UHW leadership, but our approach remains the same: we are committed to offering a package that’s aligned with all of our other unions that keeps our employees among the best paid in wages and benefits in the industry,” Tyson said.

“We are committed to our workforce who delivers on our mission every day and to our members’ demand for greater affordability of care and coverage from Kaiser Permanente.”

Tyson said Kaiser Permanente is “preparing to deal with all scenarios to make sure our members are cared for.”

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