Nearly 32,000 Kaiser Permanente workers in California, Oregon and Washington plan to strike Nov. 15, the United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals announced Thursday.
The union represents 21,000 employees of the Oakland, California-based not-for-profit integrated health system. Thousands more workers who belong to the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals and a United Steelworkers local also notified the company they intend to strike Nov. 15. The unions' contracts with Kaiser Permanente expired Oct. 1 and union members voted to authorize a labor action weeks later. Nearly 2,000 Kaiser Permanente employees with the National Union of Healthcare Workers also OK'd a strike last month but have not called one.
"The lives of our patients and the health of our communities are dependent on the outcome of these negotiations. 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, healthcare workers and professionals—wage proposals that resemble those of a slash-and-burn corporation, not the leading healthcare provider that our members helped build," United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals President Denise Duncan, a registered nurse, said in a news release.
"For healthcare 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," Duncan said.
A strike could be averted if the unions backs down or if the company gives into the labor groups' demands. An agreement prior to Nov. 15 is "very possible," Arlene Peasnall, Kaiser Permanente's senior vice president of human resources said in an emailed statement. The health system would assign managers, contingency staff and physicians to compensate for missing workers during a strike, she said.
"The challenge we are trying to address in partnership with our unions is the increasingly unaffordable cost of healthcare. And the fact is, wages and benefits account for half of Kaiser Permanente's operational costs," Peasnall said. "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."
The union called Kaiser Permanente's latest proposal "a Trojan horse" to get a two-tier wage system approved. Throughout bargaining talks, unions have objected to the company's bid to offer lower compensation to new hires compared to current employees. In addition, the health system has offered 2% raises to workers already employed there.
If a strike were to go forward, it would mark the first time since 1980 that the United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals has initiated a work stoppage against Kaiser Permanente. The union was close to striking 15 years later but ultimately reached an agreement with the health system.
Under federal labor law, healthcare unions are required to give employers a 10-day notice before striking. The open-ended strikes will begin the morning of Nov. 15, according to the unions. In southern California, 366 sites will be affected by the strike, including hospitals, medical centers, clinics, Target clinics and office buildings.
This article has been updated to include comments from a Kaiser Permanente executive.