Nearly 32,000 Kaiser Permanente workers set to strike Nov. 15. Tens of thousands more mulling their own demonstrations

Strike notices from three different unions come after the workers rejected an updated contract proposal from the system. They have the support of partner Kaiser Permanente unions across the country, several of which are also planning or voting on additional demonstrations. (UNAC/UHCP)

Almost 32,000 Kaiser Permanente workers plan to kick off an open-ended strike on Nov. 15, according to Thursday night announcements from the United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals (UNAC/UHCP), United Steelworkers (USW) Local 7600 and the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Healthcare Professionals (OFNHP).

The three labor organizations say they have submitted 10-day notices to the health system and that the strike is set to impact 366 facilities in Southern California alone. The groups together comprise registered nurses, pharmacists, industrial workers and other healthcare workers.

The dispute is driven by a new round of contract negotiations, with the unions saying that Kaiser Permanente’s offers include insufficient pay increases that do not address short staffing issues that will harm the organization over the next few years.

UNAC/UHCP said that talks between the parties sputtered out again on Tuesday when Kaiser Permanente delivered an updated proposal the union described as “something of a trojan horse maneuver to push through its two-tier wage proposal, poorly camouflaged by sub-par wage increases and bonuses.”

According to the union, the updated offer bumped a 1% wage proposal for current employees to 2%, a 2% lump sum for the first two years of the contract and then an additional lump sum that would come at the cost of a 15% cut to future members’ wages and benefits.

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“For weeks, we’ve been beating back a two-tier wage package which would impact our ability to hire, recruit and retain during a severe shortage of nurses, health care workers and professionals—wage proposals that resemble those of a slash-and-burn corporation, not the leading health care provider that our members helped build,” UNAC/UHCP President Denise Duncan said in a statement.

“For health care providers, a strike is always a last resort, but it’s clear from the employer’s latest proposals that this is the path they’ve chosen. Nurses and healthcare professionals have one priority: delivering the best possible care to our patients. Kaiser’s actions are destructive to that priority. These next few weeks will define us,” she said.

A strike could still be averted if the parties come to an agreement before Nov. 15.

UNAC/UHCP, which represents about 21,000 of the soon-to-strike workers, said that this will be the first time its members have walked off the job since 1980, “before many of its current members were born.”

USW Local 7600 and OFNHP will have 7,400 members and 3,400 members, respectively, who are set to strike against the system.

Kaiser Permanente has taken the stance that its hands are tied by the rising costs of care, particularly surrounding workforce wages.

In a statement, Senior Vice President of Human Resources Arlene Peasnall said that wages and benefits already account for half of Kaiser Permanente's operational costs. AHCU-represented employees were already earning 26% above average market wages and up to 38% more in certain areas.

"Our proposal simply aims to slow the significant over-market growth in compensation while continuing to reward our employees and fulfill our commitment to our members and patients to provide high-quality, affordable healthcare," Peasnall said in the statement.

Kaiser Permanente reported $2.2 billion in operating income during 2020 and has seen its numbers rise during the first half of 2021.

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Peasnall said that Kaiser Permanente believes it can find an agreement "that meets our shared interests and avoids an unnecessary and harmful strike." However, the system is prepared to continue care with contingency staff if common ground can't be reached, she said. 

UNAC/UHCP, USW Local 7600 and OFNHP are members of the Alliance of Health Care Unions (AHCU), a collection of 21 local Kaiser Permanente unions representing more than 58,000 members across numerous states. For the last 24 years, these groups have participated in a labor-management partnership with Kaiser Permanente that the unions say is now “on life support” as tensions rise between workers and the system.

Recent weeks have seen a handful of other AHCU unions collectively representing thousands of workers vote in favor of authorizing additional strikes against the health system. These include UNITE HERE Local 5 in Hawaii, UFCW Locals in Southern California and UFCW Local 1996 in Georgia.

Further, on Friday morning 40,000 Kaiser Permanente employees from three additional unions—SEIU-UHW, OPEIU Local 29 and IFPTE Local 20— said they are voting to authorize a one-day sympathy strike in support of engineers from Local 39, who have been striking against Kaiser Permanente for more than two months.