For a company with a historic collaborative labor agreement in place, Kaiser Permanente sure has a lot of work stoppages.
About 2,000 members of the Service Employees International Union struck Kaiser facilities in Portland, Ore., Sept. 2 over failure to agree on a new contract. About 40 clinics and two hospitals of the HMO giant are affected.
"It's a real strike," said Shelley Herochik, field services coordinator for SEIU Local 49. "We're out there for as long as it takes." No negotiations had been scheduled, she said.
This is the second work stoppage experienced by Kaiser since it unveiled an unprecedented cooperative partnership with the AFL-CIO in April.
The first was by the United Food and Commercial Workers Union in the Portland area, Local 555, which walked out for 13 days in August. Kaiser employs 270 members of that union. Both unions are members of the AFL-CIO.
At Kaiser headquarters in Oakland, Calif., and in Portland, officials stressed that the strikes should have no bearing on the AFL-CIO pact.
"We intentionally set aside collective bargaining from the partnership," said Gary Fernandez, Kaiser's senior vice president for labor-management partnerships. The partnership is about long-term strategic goals, not "short-term unfortunate experiences" such as these strikes.
Jim Pruitt, Kaiser's Portland-area labor relations director, said that in both strikes bargaining already had started before the partnership agreement was signed. "It's important to remember this national partnership is just getting started," he said. "It should not be regarded as getting off on the wrong foot."
But Herochik wasn't so sanguine. "This is a heck of a way to start off a partnership, trying to bleed your lowest-paid workers," she said. The local, which represents dental assistants, licensed practical nurses, housekeepers, cooks, medical records clerks, telephone operators, drivers, orderlies and groundskeepers, walked out because Kaiser wants the workers to pay 10% of benefits costs. Kaiser has brought in managers and other temporary replacements to keep clinics and hospitals functioning.
Even though collective bargaining was exempted from the partnership pact, Herochik said, "what you do across the bargaining table has to affect the rest of the partnership."
In April Kaiser and AFL-CIO healthcare unions unveiled the historic collaboration, under which Kaiser pledged to abstain from anti-union activities in exchange for union support in marketing the health plan to other unions. Kaiser offered its unions a place at the table in setting strategic goals and improving quality of care.
Herochik thinks the leaders of Kaiser and its unions are serious about the partnership but that her local is seeing "extreme mismanagement on the regional level."
"In the short term," Fernandez said, "these kinds of disputes*.*.*.*need to run their course. Over time, as the partnership builds its capacity, implements plans and increases trust levels, we will still have collective bargaining" but it will change to "interest-based problem solving."
Indeed, the AFL-CIO's hopes for this partnership are so strong that President John J. Sweeney hailed it last week in a speech celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.
"We're still working out all the details with Kaiser, and there's a great deal of work to be done," Sweeney said, "but I'm confident the partnership is going to have a positive effect on the work life of Kaiser employees as well as the quality of care for Kaiser plan members."