Thousands of Kaiser Permanente workers in California (including many in Fontana) have overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike in early October that could eventually end up being the biggest in the United States in more than two decades, according to a union press release on Aug. 12.
Becoming the first of more than 80,000 Kaiser workers to vote, members of the Service Employees International Union – United Healthcare Workers West (SEIU-UHW) across the state voted between July 29 and Aug. 11 whether to approve the strike at Kaiser Permanente hospitals and clinics, alleging unfair labor practices.
More than 37,000 members cast ballots in support of a strike (98 percent) while only 867 voted to oppose (2 percent). The turnout was uncommonly high for a strike vote in any industry, with two-thirds of workers casting ballots, the union said.
More than 275 workers in Fontana would be affected by this strike, the union said.
Strike authorization votes among other groups of Kaiser workers in California, and Kaiser Permanente employees in Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia, run through mid-September. The planned strike would start in early October and be the nation’s largest since the Teamsters’ walkout at United Parcel Service in 1997, the union said.
“Kaiser workers all over California are putting a stake in the ground that it’s time for this corporation to get back on track and live up to its mission to help patients, workers and communities thrive," said Heather Wright, a women’s health clerk at Kaiser Permanente in Santa Clara. “This strike vote is about stopping Kaiser’s unfair labor practices. This company should be all about providing the best possible patient care, but unfortunately its focus in recent years has been on making billions of dollars in profits and millions of dollars for Kaiser executives.”
The union said the workers are fighting for a new contract that would:
1. Restore a true worker-management partnership, and have Kaiser bargain in good faith;
2. Ensure safe staffing and compassionate use of technology;
3. Build the workforce of the future to deal with major projected shortages of licensed and accredited staff in the coming years; and
4. Protect middle-class jobs with wages and benefits that can support families.
The workers’ national contract expired on Sept. 30, 2018.
----- IN RESPONSE to the SEIU-UHW vote, John Nelson, the vice president of communications for Kaiser Permanente, said in a statement on Aug. 12 that Kaiser Permanente and SEIU-UHW have been working together toward a mutually beneficial agreement as part of the national bargaining with the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions that began in April.
"Unfortunately, SEIU-UHW leadership has decided to use the threat of a strike as a bargaining tactic, designed to divide employees and mischaracterize Kaiser Permanente’s position, even though most of the contracts don’t expire until October," Nelson said. "We believe the result of the strike vote reflects obviously misleading ballot questions used by the union."
Nelson said the SEIU-UHW has been erroneously claiming that Kaiser Permanente is attempting to cut pensions and retiree medical benefits.
"To be clear, Kaiser Permanente has presented a contract proposal that would provide annual pay increases that would keep our employees compensated higher than market averages and maintain excellent benefits. Contrary to the union’s claims, there are no pay cuts and no changes to our employees’ defined pension benefit, under our proposal," Nelson said.
"It is important to understand that a strike vote does not mean that a strike is imminent, although it does place Kaiser Permanente in the position of having to spend millions of dollars preparing for the threat of a strike event. Our first priority is always continuity of care for our patients and members."
Nelson claimed that the "Coalition’s demands are not fair to our members and the communities we serve. Coalition-represented employees are already compensated 23 percent above market rates — we pay well and we have markets where our wage rates are challenging our ability to be affordable. The Coalition’s proposal would actually increase our wages on average 32 percent above the market over the next five years, adding a billion dollars to our labor costs.
"Despite the union leadership’s disruptive tactics, we are hopeful that our employees will value our proposal and SEIU-UHW and the other Coalition unions will move forward with us to reach a new agreement. Our goal is to continue to make Kaiser Permanente a great place to give and receive care."