On Oct. 13, the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions announced a national tentative agreement had been reached with Kaiser Permanente, potentially securing major wins for over 85,000 health care workers across the country. The tentative agreement was reached after a historic strike in which 60,000 health care workers went on strike for three days in California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Virginia, and Washington D.C. As the largest health care worker strike in U.S. history, it also included the threat of an eight-day strike the following month when more workers would join in.
It should be noted that two locals in the coalition, SEIU 1199 and OPEIU 8, have contracts that expire at the end of October and are still in a contract struggle.
The national tentative agreement is the largest pay raise package in the history of the Labor Management Partnership. Despite the consistent effort by Kaiser Permanente during bargaining to divide their workers by region, all regions will be receiving across-the-board raises of 21% over the course of four years. Workers also won outsourcing and subcontracting protections across all classifications.
In addition, workers will receive a $1,500 ratification bonus and a minimum $1,500 performance-sharing bonuses for 2023 and new increased PSP payouts going forward. They also won increases in minimum wages, protected health care and pension benefits, improved retiree medical benefits, company initiatives to address the staffing shortage, among many other victories.
Victory through collective action
After being neglected during the pandemic, facing continual staffing shortages, and making far below the market wages, Kaiser workers were fed up. With their contract negotiations still months away, the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions held large public demonstrations and protests across the country. The actions demonstrated the union’s level of organization and support, and the workers’ determination to win a strong and fair contract.
Despite Kaiser’s initial regional-based offers and neglect of many core demands, it was clear that early on the union coalition was not going to allow Kaiser to divide it by region, that staffing concerns would have to be addressed, and that the coalition was prepared to fight with the utmost powers of organized labor to ensure a win for workers. Ultimately, these concerns led to the historic strike.
Throughout September, the majority of workers in the union voted to authorize a strike. On September 22, the National Bargaining Team notified executives at Kaiser Permanente of an intent to strike within 10 days, with a planned three day strike in October and eight-day strike in November due to a number of reasons including unfair labor practices, the failure of Kaiser executives to respond to numerous proposals that addressed the growing staffing shortage, and uneven and small wage increases across regions.
On Sept. 30, the national contract expired and on the morning of Oct. 4, 75,000 health care workers walked off the job and began the largest health care labor strike in U.S. history.
During last week’s bargaining sessions, executives of Kaiser and leaders of the coalition reached a labor agreement with the intervention of acting Labor Secretary Julie Su. Although Biden may give credit to his administration for reaching an agreement, the real credit is due to the militant workers of the Coalition of KP Unions who demonstrated their utter commitment to a fair contract. It was ultimately their level of organization and unity that forced Kaiser to meet their simple and necessary demands.
Dare to struggle, dare to win
The intervention of the acting Labor Secretary is just one among various recent interventions made by the federal government, such as President Biden’s attendance of UAW picket lines in late September, or his signing to block railroad worker strikes back in December 2022. What we see is a growing pattern of the federal government being forced to intervene in the interests of profit when faced with the prospect of organized labor temporarily shutting down businesses deemed “too big to fail.” This series of reactions is a testament to the resurgence and growing success of labor movements across the country and across industries. From baristas to writers, actors and autoworkers, the power of organized labor is being demonstrated and exercised. And it is clear in this struggle, as with the other labor struggles, the ultimate leverage in reaching a bargaining victory was the unity and preparedness of workers organized in their union.