Kaiser Permanente healthcare workers in southern California sent a strike notice to executives on Thursday, notifying them of their intent to begin an open-ended strike beginning Nov. 15 over disputes for a new contract.
As many as 28,400 healthcare workers, including a large contingent of nurses, could walk off the job in southern California. Another 3,400 are set to strike in Oregon. The strike notices were sent from three separate unions who are a part of a larger umbrella union that bargains as one.
The work stoppage could pose a significant challenge to operations in Kaiser's southern California market, where the union members represent about 37% of the workforce in the region where Kaiser operates 14 hospitals and more than 200 clinics.
"We did not want to get to the point where we're striking," Peter Sidhu, a union representative at the bargaining table, said. Sidhu is also a former Kaiser ICU nurse. "The reason that we're going to strike is all about patient care, because [we] want to attract the best quality nurses."
In a statement Friday, Kaiser said labor unions are an important part of its history and said the challenge it faces is the "increasingly unaffordable" cost of healthcare. The system said that wages and benefits account for half of its operation costs.
"We are asking our labor partners to work with us to address this very real problem through an interest-based process, just as we have done with other challenges over the course of our partnership," according to the statement.
Kaiser said that if a strike occurs it will bring in contingency staff as needed and patient care will continue.
During negotiation, the two sides could not come to terms on wages and staffing issues.
Workers are opposed to Kaiser's proposal to institute a two-tier wage structure in which new hires would be paid on a lower wage scale in an effort to cut costs. Workers fear it will hinder the system's ability to attract and retain top talent, and breed resentment.
The union is calling for 4% raises across the board each year for the next three years and greater collaboration and transparency into staffing levels and needs across the region.
It's poised to be the largest work stoppage this year, according to data through September from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
If a deal is not reached before Nov. 15, Kaiser employees will join thousands of workers across the country who have taken to the picket line to extract better pay and benefits from their employers, including workers at John Deere and Kellogg's.
Open-ended healthcare strikes can last for quite a long time. Two examples come from this year alone. Nurses at a Tenet hospital in Worcester, Massachusetts, have been on the picket line for more than eight months. Similarly, employees at Catholic Health's Mercy Hospital in Buffalo, New York, have been on a strike that's currently at 34 days.
Workers with the United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals voted to authorize a strike in mid-October. About 96% of those who voted, 18,000 members of 21,000 eligible, opted to authorize a strike. The results signaled a strong rebuke from healthcare workers who are burned out from the pandemic and seeking to improve wages and staffing. Union members from United Steelworkers Local 7600 in southern California also voted to authorize a strike. USW represents another 7,400 Kaiser employees in the region.
The two sides have been bargaining since the spring, Sidhu said, and the contract expired in September.
The last major work stoppage by this union occurred nearly four decades ago, in 1980, according to union officials. In 1995, a strike was averted after a contract was agreed to after members voted to authorize a strike.
Officials with the United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals said they represent the vast majority of Kaiser's registered nurses in southern California and all of Kaiser's physician assistants, pharmacists, midwives, physical and occupational therapists and optometrists.
UNAC/UHCP is part of 21 partner unions under the larger umbrella of the Alliance of Health Care Unions, which leads bargaining.