On Jan. 17, while millions of workers across the country had the day off to honor Martin Luther King Jr., Kaiser health care workers in California were denied the day, prompting swift action from the National Union of Healthcare Workers. A hundred people gathered outside the Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center to picket the health industry giant forcing its overworked health care professionals to work this holiday honoring a man who held the power of labor in such high regard. Close to 200 workers went on strike, joined in solidarity by labor organizers and community members.
Signs on the picket line read: “Kaiser, don’t deny the legacy of MLK Jr.” and “ NUHW workers demand paid MLK holiday.” Increased staffing, improving access to culturally competent care and addressing unsustainable working conditions are all part of NUHW’s demands.
ILWU Local 10 steward Jack Heyman spoke to Liberation News about the importance of supporting labor actions on this day. Heyman said, “We have a whole history of solidarity with striking unions. Martin Luther King said that the fight against racism goes hand in hand with the fight for labor, and in fact MLK is an honorary member of our Local 10 [International Longshore and Warehouse] union.” Dr. King believed that the struggle for civil rights and the struggle for labor power shared the same demands: “Decent wages, fair working conditions, livable housing, old-age security, health and welfare measures, conditions in which families can grow, have education for their children and respect in the community.”
Kaiser has been slow to address structural racism within the company. MLK Day was set to become a paid holiday this year, but Kaiser backtracked, delaying it until 2023. Mental health care workers had been requesting the holiday for over a decade, and after the police murder of George Floyd, their demands addressing racism within the organization increased. A survey of 1,500 Kaiser health care workers showed 62% of non-white workers experiencing racism on the job and 35% of respondents witnessing racism toward patients.
After picketing, the workers and supporters marched from the medical center to Kaiser’s corporate headquarters downtown for a rally. Throughout the event, speakers noted the lack of people in the building, as executives and administrative workers did indeed have the day off.
During the rally, NUHW reported waits of up to 10 weeks for mental health appointments. The need for mental health care has increased during the pandemic as people face higher levels of insecurity. Erik Metzger, an addiction specialist in Richmond, exclaimed, “We’re here to honor MLK. … We are here to honor our patients. I can’t understand as an employee, why are executives making millions of dollars and they can’t hire extra therapists, why is that happening? Why are patients having to wait months for appointments? Why are they suffering and sometimes killing themselves isolated at home? Why is that happening? This company has 40 billion in cash reserves, why can’t they fork some of that over for the community?“
Organizers encouraged everyone present to paste their signs on the Kaiser building’s windows. Once the crowd dispersed, the front windows were left plastered with the union’s demands and proof of the community’s support for executives to see.
Leila Malikya, a community member and strike supporter, expressed the need for solidarity: “We care for our health care workers as they are the backbone of getting us through this pandemic. So the fact that they don’t have the day off and they are not being cared for is disproportional compared to the care they are doing for the community. It’s important that we show up, especially today on MLK day.”
Now more than ever, our communities need to be organized and in solidarity, fighting for racial justice and the well-being of all.