Since July, a massive strike loomed large for Kaiser Permanente facilities across the country.
More than 85,000 unionized workers were prepared to walk off the job Oct. 14 in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maryland, Oregon, Washington, Virginia and Washington, D.C.
But last week, Kaiser reached a tentative contract agreement with 11 unions engaged in the protracted labor dispute. The unions were able to get most of their demands met in a four-year deal, highlighting the advantages they have in the current economic climate.
The tentative contract includes guaranteed wage increases, a workforce development program and the reinstatement of the long-standing worker-management partnership, which allows workers to be at the table regarding issues at Kaiser.
“Our chief concerns throughout this process have been rewarding our employees for exemplary work they do, while at the same time delivering on our commitment to affordability and accessibility for our members and communities,” said Kaiser spokesman Marc Brown, in an email.
The contract will be voted on by all union workers starting this week, and the bargaining committee is confident it will be approved, according to Rekha Radhakrishnan, spokeswoman for SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West.
The union’s success in extracting concessions from Kaiser before a strike could ensue illustrates the leverage healthcare workers have in the current job market.
The high employment rate nationally is encouraging union workers to demand more from their employers, according to Paul Clark, director of the School of Labor and Employment Relations at Penn State University. Workers feel more secure in their jobs to threaten strikes and employers can’t rely on a robust labor market to replace them, so they face pressure to meet demands, he said. Last month, the national unemployment rate was 3.7%.
“It’s not a slam dunk, it’s not everyone surrendering (to their demands) but they (unions) are in a much better position now than 10 years ago,” Clark said.
Employment of registered nurses is projected to grow 12% from 2018 to 2028, much faster than the average for all occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And data from the Health Resources and Services Administration suggested that hiring will vary greatly by state. There will be a surplus of 53,700 full-time equivalents in Florida, compared with a shortage of 44,500 in California by 2030, HRSA projected.
In fact, along with Kaiser, other prominent health systems are currently facing tough labor negotiations, particularly with their nursing workforce.
About 2,200 University of Chicago Medical Center nurses went on strike Sept. 20 after contract negotiations fell apart. The nurses, represented by National Nurses United, are demanding more nurses be hired, claiming they are overworked and patient care is impeded by current staffing levels. University of Chicago contends its staffing levels “are the best in the state and city.” The nurses’ contract expired in April.
Total nursing hours per patient day stood at 7.87 in 2017 for the University of Chicago, according to the most recent data available from the Illinois Department of Public Health. The state average was 6.68 hours. The measure is the total hours worked by all registered nurses in the medical-surgical unit divided by the number of unit patient days in the reporting period.