Photo: Kaiser IOUE Local 39 engineers on the picket line
Tens of thousands of Kaiser Permanente workers across California and Oregon gave their 10-day notice last week in preparation to go on strike next Monday, Nov. 15. The strike comes in response to a proposed two-tier wage system and critical staffing shortages during the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic. An estimated 32,000 nurses, pharmacists, engineers and other healthcare workers plan to walk off their worksites. The last time the union, United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals, struck against Kaiser was in 1980, and members authorized a strike in 1995 but eventually settled the contract.
In addition, the UNAC also announced in a press release that: “The 7,400 members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 7600 in Southern California and 3,400 members of Oregon Federation of Nurses and Healthcare Professionals will also strike against Kaiser Permanente beginning the same day.”
After failing to reach an agreement, the Guild of Professional Pharmacists, the union representing Kaiser’s pharmacists in Northern California, delivered its 10-day notice for a strike also starting on Nov. 15. About 2,500 pharmacists are expected to strike for the week.
In a strike announcement video, workers shared their support for the strike. Peter Sidhu, a registered nurse said: “We’re at the point where if we don’t make a change … there may be no fixing it for the foreseeable future. We need to stick together and not let the employer divide us. Because in order for us to provide the best care, we need the best pay and the best wages. And UNAC/UHCP will not stand by and allow the employer to jeopardize patient care when searching for profits.”
To mitigate the worker shortage as a result of the strike, Kaiser is expected to hire temporary workers with the risk of a skills gap that can potentially cause administrative and clinical errors, which will ultimately result in unsafe patient care. Kaiser’s management would rather take this risk and put patients in harm’s way rather than giving striking workers the contract that they deserve.
Earlier this year, Kaiser reported $88.7 billion in total operating revenue and $2.2 billion in income in 2020. Despite enormous gains during the pandemic, Kaiser refused to adequately pay its healthcare staff wages for their extraordinary service and hire additional workers to meet the increased burden in the healthcare system. Instead, despite being one of the country’s largest healthcare systems, Kaiser proposed a two-tiered wage and benefits system that would give even fewer pay and benefits to newer workers. UNAC also described that Kaiser surpassed its competitors with 591,000 new customers, bringing its total membership to 9.2 million.
Moreover, in a lawsuit filed in October of this year based on whistleblowers’ complaints, the Department of Justice alleged that Kaiser defrauded $1 billion of Medicare by altering patient records and fabricating patient diagnoses. This shows that Kaiser not only disregards its workers through low wages, but it also gambles with patients’ benefits and is willing to steal from vital social services to make a profit.
Kaiser also has a history of racist pay standards that pays workers of color up to 39% less for the same work as it pays other workers. USW holds that, “Wage justice is racial justice.” Speaking about the wage disparity, Michele Bass, an outpatient licensed vocational nurse and USW Local 7600 member said: “This is systemic racism because 75% of the employees in the Inland Empire are minorities. … We’re making less than our fellow workers in LA, San Diego, Orange County and other areas. It disappoints me that I’m not worth making what other employees make for the same hard work in this time almost the last two years, it’s been very, very difficult. You know, I’ve been coughed on, spit on … grabbed, cussed at, I have been mistreated. … We were great in the midst of the uncertainty of COVID, but now that it’s dying down, we aren’t worth it anymore. … I put myself out there, I was worth it then to be a hero. Why am I not worth it now?”
In a massive show of union solidarity, multiple United Food and Commercial Workers Union locals, like Local 770, Local 135, Local 1167, Local 1428, and others have also submitted their strike notice for Nov. 18. UFCW Local 770 member Teresa Almora explained: “In this economy that we are in today getting a 1% increase per year for the next three years in California, that is not sustainable. That is something that is not just going to hurt us financially but also emotionally having to struggle to keep up with our regular payments and rents. … We have to feed our family and keep them clothed and covered.”
This collectively brings the number of striking workers to over 34,000 Alliance of Healthcare union members in the upcoming week.
Additionally, an estimated 700 members of Local 39 of the International Union of Operating Engineers have been on strike since Sept. 18 and held round-the-clock picket lines at 24 hospitals in Northern California. In a rally held on Friday last week, Kim Tavaglione, Executive Director of the San Francisco Labor Council, told the audience that this strike is not just about economic issues; it is about patient care. Other striking workers described the lack of a working heating system in at least one ICU room. Stationary Engineers maintain the HVAC system and other equipment that is important to the safe functioning of modern hospitals. Other unions like NUHW, AFT, UESF, IBEW Local 6, Sign Display Local 510 IUPAT, Teamsters Local 87, Engineers and Scientists Local 21 IFPTE and SEIU were also present.
As workers’ struggle spreads across the country, solidarity and unity with these workers can help defeat the corporate bosses who continue to place profits over the same people they called heroes at the onset of the pandemic.