Kaiser permanente health care workers protest conditions across Washington state and country amidst contract struggle

On July 26-27, the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions, which includes SEIU 1199NW and OPEIU Local 8, held protests in Seattle, Bellevue, Tacoma and Spokane, Washington, as well as across several other states. The protests were held amidst national negotiations against the rampant understaffing they face and the consequences this results in for patients and workers.  

The Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions unites more than 85,000 health care workers at Kaiser Permanente facilities across the nation, including workers in California, Colorado, Oregon, District of Columbia, Washington and more. The coalition is in a Labor Management Partnership with Kaiser Permanente and represents the largest such contract in the country. The partnership was formed under threat of national strike in 1996 when 26 unions came together for a fair and just contract. Today, the pattern of unity amongst workers in the coalition remains strong, as does the pattern of their mistreatment by Kaiser.

“We’re sitting here fighting for crumbs, and they want us to fight over those crumbs and they’re trying to divide us. But that’s why we’re standing here in a coalition. We are one coalition. And when we stand together, we fight together,” said Misha Smith, organizer with OPEIU Local 8 in Bellevue. 

The protests took place two months prior to the end of the contract on Sept. 30. After four national bargaining sessions and a few local ones, Kaiser has not taken worker demands seriously.  

Worker conditions plus COVID-19 effects 

Workers at Kaiser faced unprecedented understaffing during a global pandemic with no pay raise, leaving both workers and patients traumatized. Alanna Martin, social worker, mental health care worker and member of the national bargaining team, said that in her 21 years of employment at Kaiser she “has never seen the urgent care as packed as it has been in the last year, and we just don’t have the staff to support it. We can’t keep folks here at the wages that we are at, which is about 20% behind all of the health care workers in our community. That is absolutely unacceptable.”

Alanna with her two children at the protest.

Health care workers at competing surrounding establishments, including at Swedish Health Services, Harborview Medical Center and the University of Washington, have already received significant wage increases before their contracts even ended.

According to one SEIU organizer, Kaiser nurses are being paid $20 behind the rest of the market. “Kaiser is a company that makes a $100 billion of profits a year and they are telling us that it’s okay for them to have employees that can’t afford to live in the places that we work,” said Jessica Wolfe, nurse at Kaiser for seven years and an organizer with SEIU 1199NW. 

The effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic continue to be felt by Kaiser workers and thus their patients. The last contract was negotiated in 2019, pre-pandemic, and thus the agreements in the contract do not have the ability to address the crisis that health care systems experienced across the country.  

“None of the CEOs was in the patient rooms. None of them showed up. None of them showed up. I watched plenty of staff, and I was part of staff, crying in these rooms during COVID. Watched coworkers get COVID, get sick with COVID. None of the CEOs, they were safe. We are understaffed, we’re underpaid. There are 30,000 vacancies here for a reason,” said a nurse who worked through the pandemic in a facility in Bellevue. Tony, a registered nurse, said “half of our staffing is travelers. Right? Instead of investing in our workers.” The intense level of work that workers underwent during the pandemic is one of the reasons they are demanding retention bonuses and goes along with workers core demand for conditions that recruit and retain. 

Kaiser fails to take workers seriously or invest in them

There has been no response from the company during bargaining regarding proposals from the union addressing recruitment and retention, equity at the workplace, staffing and workforce development. Proposals within these areas include establishing a $25 minimum wage, retention bonuses, parity in pay, no harassment for speaking one’s own languages at work and improvements in safety and training. “We’re kind of at a halt right now. I don’t think we’re gaining too much. They have their position, they’re not taking us seriously, they’re not coming to the table with some of the things we’re requesting. At the bargaining table, on the management side there has been no sense of urgency. They say they are not ready to talk about economics. But they’re ready to invest in another organization and a bunch of other investments everywhere. But they are not investing in us. If not now. Then, when?” said Tony Rodriguez, registered nurse at the Bellevue facility. 

One of the core contradictions being pointed out by the workers is the smoke and mirrors that Kaiser has given them when confronted at the bargaining table. Kaiser workers have made demands consisting of a humble increase in pay to meet the raising price tag of decent housing and other basic necessities, as well as the hiring of more staff to end the understaffing that has plagued the workplace since the pandemic, delayed the treatment patients need, and slowly diminished the energy of workers. All the while, Kaiser’s statements have ranged from stating that they were exceptional in their protections of employees during the pandemic or that in some regions their employees actually make relatively higher pay.

This easy dismissal became a flat-out insult to the workers when they discovered, after months of conveying their worries about their deteriorating working conditions, that Kaiser had announced plans for the creation of a new nonprofit organization named Risant, aimed at expanding their “value-based care” in new environments. For this new organization, it acquired Geisinger, an already existing Pennsylvania-based health system, pledging $5 billion for the further development of Risant, with a current goal of adding five to six more health systems.

Permanente Medical group CEO Robert Pearl has stated that this acquisition was necessary to avoid being defeated by the growing presence of retail giants in health care and to gain influence in national policy. The new nonprofit could be used to create a non-union and non-partnership sector in a company that is currently entirely represented by a union — either Alliance of Health Care Unions or the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions, as well as additional independent locals. This could be used to lower labor standards and negatively impact and divide workers.  

Kaiser also invests $113 billion in companies that have devastating consequences for community health and wellbeing, including oil and gas and predatory-loan lending industries. Instead of investing in its workers, Kaiser is one of the leading investors in the fossil fuel industry among health care companies. Of the $4.6 billion of fossil fuels assets held by the Mayo Clinic, Kaiser Permanente, HCA and Ascension — the biggest health care providers in the nation — Kaiser accounts for $2.5 billion. This is more than $1 billion than the next investor, Mayo Clinic. Kaiser invests in some of the world’s largest and most ecologically devastating fossil fuel companies in the world, including $63.2 million in investments in Exxon Mobil, $61.6 million in Shell, $80.2 million in Suncor Energy, and $63.6 million at Conoco Phillips — the only company that currently drills in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve, which will be expanding its operations with Biden’s approval. 

To add insult to injury, Misha Smith informed workers at the Bellevue rally that at negotiations, Greg Adams, the CEO of the company, did not come. There were immediate boos from the crowd. “He was out closing the deal with Verizon. He didn’t even have the time and date for us, 85,000 members … At the next bargaining session, we found out about Verizon … They didn’t want to spend any money on us.” Kaiser has also proposed eliminating workforce committees that had been solving workplace issues and extending employee grievance timelines. Kaiser has yet to take 85,000 united health care workers seriously or invest in them. 

Kaiser Permanente’s net worth doubled between 2018 and 2022 to $58.9 billion. They pay 49 executives more than a million dollars a year. Clearly, Kaiser has the funds to invest in their workers who are still recovering from the ongoing pandemic. Unlike the company, workers have remained loyal to their patients in all the ways they can, including risking their families’ lives during the pandemic when they didn’t have PPE or knowledge about the virus. “We know we have fully invested to the mission of Kaiser. And we have been true to the calling. We have given time we need for our families. We have given time we need for vacation. Just to be here so we can take care of our patients. We are here to fully invest in our patients. But Kaiser, where are you?” asked Maggie Vulaono, SEIU1999. 

Ongoing struggle expected 

With actions happening across the country last week, the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions have shown that they are standing strong and united in the fight for a strong contract despite any attempts to divide them. Although workers in Washington do not have the right to strike, unions in the coalition with that right have stated they know they need to be strike ready in order to win a strong contract and have already started preparing strike leads.

“We are gonna fight. We are gonna fight for a just and fair contract. We are gonna fight for significant wage increases. We’re gonna fight for staffing. We are gonna fight for quality care that our patients need and deserve!” said John, a physical therapist for 28 years at Kaiser Permanente and with SEIU 1199 at the rally in Seattle.

A fierce struggle can be expected between the Coalition and Kaiser Permanente. Clients who receive their health care from Kaiser and community members who support their cause are encouraged to join workers on the protest lines and potential picket lines. Misha, with OPEIU Local 8, said, “Please come and support us as much as you can because we could use your support. We’re here, we’ve been at the table for the last four months and we’ve been going every two weeks. We need your support. Come out and support us.”

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