We are still reeling from the loss of Bernard J. Tyson, a visionary labor-management leader who was also a committed, compassionate innovator unafraid to speak the truth and seek solutions on healthcare delivery, care disparities, care for transgender and other vulnerable populations, income inequality, climate change, racial profiling and homelessness.
Our members knew Bernard well because he made it a point to come to each of our annual union leadership conferences, and he insisted on taking unscreened questions from the floor, responding with candor and humor. I believe he was the only major CEO in America to welcome open-ended, public questions from frontline union members who were never shy with their comments and questions.
His last appearance at our Alliance Leadership Conference was on Oct. 4, 2019, in Los Angeles, when in characteristic fashion he noted, “We have not always agreed with each other at any given time, but we have learned how to disagree without being disagreeable.”
Bernard was a champion of Kaiser Permanente’s groundbreaking Labor Management Partnership, the largest and most successful such partnership in the U.S. His championship of the partnership—a unique approach to engaging frontline union members in decisions about how care is delivered—was characteristic of his willingness to innovate. The partnership has proven to be a key driver of industry-leading quality and performance, generating success that has enabled unrivaled job security and compensation.
When visiting Kaiser Permanente’s healthcare facilities, he personally met with and recognized the unit-based teams—3,500 jointly led teams of union members, physicians and managers working together to improve care. Through the partnership, he said, “We have tapped into the potential of smart people all over the organization coming here every single day trying to figure out, ‘How do I improve quality; how do I improve service; how do I improve affordability?’ That’s an incredible competitive advantage.”
Denise Duncan, president of United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals, recalled “how close so many union members were to him. He made them feel he was part of them, and that he came from the same place. He carefully listened to our members’ presentations about the innovations they made in their unit-based teams, and he would speak to the power of our members and what they brought to the patients that receive care in KP.”
Bernard championed Kaiser’s work to address the social determinants of health. He courageously spoke out about his own experiences of racial profiling. He worked closely with the Obama administration on the Affordable Care Act. When other insurance providers pulled out of the ACA marketplaces, he made it clear that Kaiser Permanente would remain active there.
On the day news of Bernard’s passing spread, I was swamped with messages and calls from shocked and grieving union members. We will never forget his contributions, courage and convictions.
The Alliance of Health Care Unions is made up of 21 local unions representing more than 50,000 Kaiser Permanente employees.