The federal government in March will weigh in on a labor negotiations dispute between California-based Kaiser Permanente and a coalition affiliated with the SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West union.
The National Labor Relations Board hearing will mark the culmination of months of political drama between a major health system and the union. SEIU has battled with the state's hospitals for years through voter ballot initiatives targeting health systems' profits. The hearing will likely draw attention from the industry.
The complaint from the SEIU-affiliated Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions, filed last May, came after a major union rift pushed the SEIU out of labor negotiations.
On Wednesday, the politics of the dispute escalated as SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West heralded the hearing announcement as a federal indictment against the health system.
"The workers who have helped make this company so successful over the years now feel that their concerns are validated," Dave Regan, president of SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West, said in a statement. "No longer can Kaiser Permanente claim it was trying to do right by its employees and patients by holding up bargaining and trying to stop workers from speaking out."
Kaiser meanwhile said the way the SEIU has framed the hearing is "misleading and inaccurate."
"There has been no indictment and no decision," said John Nelson, vice president of communications for Kaiser Permanente. "The NLRB is following its routine process to set an evidentiary hearing, as already announced in December."
The dispute followed a major union rift early last year. In March, 22 union locals representing 45,000 Kaiser workers split from the long-standing Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions, which includes SEIU, after political escalations mounted between the SEIU leaders and Kaiser. That included a prospective ballot initiative filed by the SEIU in California, and subsequently withdrawn, which took aim at the health system's insurance business arm.
The 22 union locals formed the new Alliance of Health Care Unions and kicked off negotiations with the health system in May for a new labor-management agreement, which they signed off on in November.
But Kaiser left the SEIU-affiliated Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions out of these talks, provoking an immediate complaint from the group. SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West has an existing contract that expires next October.
Just before year-end, the NLRB announced it would hear the complaint against Kaiser, highlighting provisions in a proposed agreement with the new coalition that would deter political activity including sympathy strikes, any conduct that could "jeopardize" Kaiser's tax-exempt status and participation in "corporate campaigns."
Last February, SEIU organized protests by Kaiser employees over claims of expected wage cuts and outsourcing of jobs.
The SEIU-affiliated coalition covers 11 unions locals across several states and the District of Columbia and an estimated 85,000 Kaiser employees, according to the SEIU.
The new Alliance of Health Care Unions meanwhile negotiated a new agreement with Kaiser. An alliance spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment by deadline but a news release from the group in October touted the tentative agreement as "strengthening the commitment that Kaiser Permanente and the partner unions will promote each other's mutual success."
SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West has waged fraught battles with California's healthcare industry. Last year the group launched major ballot campaigns to cap hospital profits as well as payments to the dialysis industry.
The dialysis industry doled out more than $100 million to defeat Proposition 8, which broke records as the most expensive ballot initiative in U.S. history.