UPDATE: Sept. 17, 2019: Following an "unproductive" day of negotiations Monday, the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions announced the seven-day strike is scheduled to begin Oct. 14, a spokesperson told Healthcare Dive.
- The union representing Kaiser Permanente employees in Colorado voted overwhelmingly to support an strike in October over the not-for-profit integrated health system's labor practices and soaring profits, days before a scheduled sit down between the two groups.
- More than 3,000 Colorado workers voted on the strike, with 96% voting in support. With the addition of the state's employees, roughly 42,000 workers in the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions have voted to approve the strike, and only 1,000 have voted no. Four unions have yet to vote.
- A spokesperson for Kaiser Permanente Colorado attributed the state workers' green light Thursday to "obviously misleading ballot questions" used by the union. The worker coalition will sit down with Oakland, California-based Kaiser on Monday for another bargaining session.
If enacted, the union says the strike would be the country's largest private sector work stoppage in two decades, with some 85,000 workers, mostly nonclinical staffers, walking out on the job nationwide. More than 60% of the union showed up to cast a ballot, according to Service Employees International Union Local 105, with a strong majority voting to go ahead with the strike.
"Kaiser Permanente and SEIU Local 105 have been working together toward a mutually beneficial agreement as part of the national bargaining with the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions that began in April," a spokesperson for Kaiser Permanente Colorado told Healthcare Dive via email. "Unfortunately, SEIU leadership has decided to use the threat of a strike, a move designed to divide employees and mischaracterize Kaiser Permanente’s position."
Kaiser is attributing the Colorado workers' nod of approval in part to ballot questions that it says misconstrue the not-for-profit's most recent contract proposal, which includes guaranteed wage increases and no changes to employee pension benefits. Coalition-represented employees in the state are already compensated on average 23% above market rates, according to the integrated health system.
Strikes have become a popular bargaining tool for healthcare workers recently, especially among nurses. California nurses at Dignity Health called off a strike in August after winning concessions on staffing and safety issues, and nurses working at Tenet hospitals in Arizona, California and Florida are planning a one-day strike later this month over similar concerns.
The looming Kaiser strike is attracting growing support among politicians, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, presidential hopeful Senator Kamala Harris, D-Calif., Sens. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., and Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif.
The Denver City Council also came out in support of the strike last week, sending a letter to Kaiser expressing its concern over unfair labor practice complaints, outsourcing of middle class jobs, and lowering of raises and benefits despite record profits for the system. Kaiser made more than $5.2 billion in net income in the first half of the year alone.
Nonprofit healthcare companies are facing increased scrutiny around their financials and tax-exempt status, and Kaiser is feeling the heat. California Governor Gavin Newsom (D) signed a bill into law earlier this month mandating Kaiser disclose its finances on a per-facility basis, a move that will give employers greater leverage to negotiate friendly insurance rates and could cut into the system's bottom line.
The worker strike, loosely planned for some time in October, has a few hurdles left to surmount. Four unions have yet to finish their voting. A Bay Area union of doctors and scientists, including optometrists, will announce its results early next week, followed by a union based in the Washington, D.C. metro area and two more in Southern California.
Final voting results from those latter unions should trickle in around Sept. 22 or 23, Sean Wherley, a spokesperson for SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West, told Healthcare Dive.
Two unions representing Kaiser workers in California, Oregon and Washington State previously approved the strike before Colorado's approval Thursday. The strike would be the largest in the U.S. since the Teamster's 1997 walkout at United Parcel Service, SEIU says.
It's almost been a full year since the workers' national contract expired. In December, the National Labor Relations Board charged Kaiser with failing to bargain in good faith, and the two groups have been at a relative standstill ever since.
"Kaiser workers in Colorado are prepared to do what it takes to get Kaiser back on track as the healthcare provider that helps patients, employees, and communities thrive," Patrician Johnson-Gibson, healthcare VP at SEIU Local 105 in Denver, said in a statement. "We hope this strike vote sends a message to Kaiser that workers are willing to do whatever it takes to advocate for our patients and our families."
The Coalition and Kaiser will meet for another bargaining session Sept. 16, followed by a two-day session the following week on Sept. 23 and 24. Wherley declined to discuss if the union expected a positive or negative outcome from the discussions.