By Miriam Raftery
September 23, 2019 (San Diego) -- Over 4,200 healthcare workers at Kaiser Permanente in San Diego, including 480 East County workers in El Cajon and La Mesa, will be joining a nationwide strike starting October 14th. An overwhelming 98 percent of those members at Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local 30 voted in support of the action.
Jobs affected by the strike include optometrists, clinical laboratory scientists, respiratory and x-ray technicians, licensed vocational nurses, certified nursing assistants, surgical technicians, pharmacy technicians, phlebotomists, medical assistants and housekeepers, among hundreds of other positions.
If no settlement is reached, it will be the nation’s largest strike in more than two decades , since 185,000 Teamsters walked off the job at UPS in 1997. A strike would impact more than 80,000 workers in six states and the District of Columbia.
Picket lines will be set up at Kaiser Permanente hospitals, medical office buildings and other facilities in California, Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C.
“We believe the only way to ensure our patients get the best care is to take this step,” said Robert Sparrow, an x-ray technician at Kaiser Permanente in San Diego. “Our goal is to get Kaiser to stop committing unfair labor practices and get back on track as the best place to work and get care. There is no reason for Kaiser to let a strike happen when it has the resources to invest in patients, communities and workers.”
In late August, Elita Adjei, director of media relations for Kaiser Permanente Southern California, called strike threats a bargaining tactic. Adjei told the San Diego Reader, “Coalition-represented employees are already compensated 23 percent above market rates...The coalition’s proposal would actually increase our wages on average 32 percent above the market over the next five years, adding $1 billion to our labor costs. At a time when we are working hard to keep our care affordable, the coalition’s demands are not fair to our members and the communities we serve.”
According to the union, workers are trying to negotiate a new National Agreement that would:
- Restore a true worker-management partnership;
- Ensure safe staffing and compassionate use of technology.
- Build the workforce of the future to deal with major projected shortages of licensed and accredited staff in the coming years; and
- Protect middle-class jobs with wages and benefits that can support families.
The workers’ national contract expired Sept. 30, 2018, and in December 2018 the National Labor Relations Board charged Kaiser Permanente with failing to bargain in good faith. Since then, Kaiser has continued to commit unfair labor practices.
Support from elected officials, clergy and labor unions continues to grow across the country for the unfair labor practices strike: five Democratic presidential candidates; U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.); 16 U.S. Representatives, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi; 70 California state legislators; the Denver City Council; labor federations representing hundreds of thousands of workers; and 90 faith leaders, who called Kaiser’s actions a “moral failing.”
As a non-profit entity, Kaiser Permanente is mandated to serve the public interest in exchange for not paying income taxes and minimal to no property taxes – an estimated tax break of more than $2.3 billion over the last two years.
But in recent years, the union claims the corporation has departed from its community-oriented mission by piling up record profits of over $11 billion since January 2017 and reserves of $37 billion. If a nonprofit could be listed on the Fortune 500, Kaiser would be ranked #34, the union contends.
Kaiser is also drawing fire for paying its CEO, $16 million a year including a 60 percent raise in 2017, earning him more than the CEOs of for-profit corporations such as Starbucks, Coca-Cola and UPS. The company reportedly pays 35 other executives a million dollars or more annually, while outsourcing hundreds of California jobs as it also seeks to slash wages and benefits for future workers.
Meanwhile, Kaiser patients have been socked with rising healthcare premiums, including a 9.2 spike this year on individual plans and 4.7 percent for large group plans, the union contends. Moreover, the corporation may be under-serving low-income patients who rely on Medicaid in California, where only 8 percent of Kaiser’s patients received Medicaid, compared to 27 percent of patients at other nonprofit health systems.