Thousands Strike State-Wide (see more below)
By Lauren Steussy / NBC San Diego / January 31, 2012
Workers at Kaiser Permanente are lining up in front of facilities across California to bring awareness to contract disputes with Kaiser’s mental health and optical employees.
Statewide, 4,000 National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) employees will strike for 24-hours Tuesday. It is expected to be one of the biggest strikes in Kaiser’s history, since two other unions will also walk out. The disputes center around proposed cuts to retirement and health care benefits.
Over 200 of those NUHW employees work in San Diego. It’s the group’s fourth walkout since contract negotiations began in 2010. The most recent one since Tuesday’s was in September.
Workers on strike say Kaiser’s disputes affect not only their own health care and benefits, but also patient care.
“We’ve worked hard to make Kaiser successful,” said Sarah Eberst, a Lincensed Clinical Social Worker with NUHW, “but we don’t want that to come at the cost of pateint care or at the cost of our own retirement benefits or healthcare.”
In April, Kaiser sent an economic proposal back to the unions, which have not negotiated since, according to MaryAnn Barnes, Senior Vice President and Executive Director Health Plan and Hospital for Kaiser in San Diego.
“We’re very disappointed, and we need to see movement in the negotiations,” Barnes said. “We’re willing to negotiate in good faith, but we are not getting the same kind of reaction from NUHW.”
All Kaiser hospitals and medical offices are expected to remain open during the strike, with Kaiser relying on replacement workers and nurse managers for additional staffing. This is possible because a very small group of the workers are actually on strike today, Barnes said.
“When Kaiser is making billions of dollars of profit per year,” Eberst said, “It’s not okay to be cutting back on employees retirement and health care.”
Thousands of Kaiser workers wage one-day strike
By Sandy Kleffm / Mercury News / Jan. 31, 2012
As striking workers circled outside Kaiser Permanente medical centers throughout Northern California on Tuesday, hospital and union leaders traded allegations about the motivations behind the bitter dispute.
Much of the controversy centered around the striking nurses, who have a contract through 2014 but walked out in sympathy with mental health and optical workers who are negotiating a new contract.
A hospital association ran a full-page newspaper advertisement claiming the nurses have no sympathy for patients and are only concerned about increasing their membership.
Kaiser said the nurses have no right to strike. And a nurses union spokesman shot back that if Kaiser has enough money to pay its top executives multimillion-dollar salaries, it doesn’t need to impose major cutbacks on its workers.
Amid the words, thousands of Kaiser employees walked off the job to protest stalled negotiations over a new contract.
Kaiser brought in replacement workers and planned to keep all of its hospitals and medical offices open during the one-day action, which ends at 7 a.m. Wednesday.
But some drop-in services such as optical sales may be closed in certain locations, Kaiser noted in a letter to patients.
The strike was called by the 4,000 members of National Union of Healthcare Workers, representing mental health clinicians, clinical psychologists, licensed social workers and opticians. The union began bargaining for a new contract in 2010.
Two other unions agreed to walk out in sympathy — up to 17,000 registered nurses with the California Nurses Association/ National Nurses United, and 650 members of Stationary Engineers Local 39.
Exactly how many employees participated in the strike remains unclear. Kaiser claimed more than two-thirds of nurses crossed the picket line to work, but union leaders disputed those numbers.
NUHW and the nurses held a similar strike in September.
The disagreement centers around wages and what NUHW claims are major cuts proposed in health-care coverage and retirement benefits. The union also has complained about staffing levels, arguing that patients often endure long waits for mental health appointments.
At Kaiser facilities in Oakland, a boisterous crowd played the Gloria Gaynor song, “I will survive,” and marched along Howe Street.
“We understand there might be take-aways,” but Kaiser’s proposal went too far, said Tommie Nichols, an optician who has worked 37 years at Kaiser Oakland. “We’re not going to stand for it.”
The union is prepared to return to negotiations, said Jose Zabala, also an optician with Kaiser Oakland. But he added, “We’re prepared to strike and walk until June if necessary — as long as it takes to get a contract settled.”
About 100 red-clad workers stood outside Kaiser Antioch Medical Center on Deer Valley Road. Some held signs with a line through the word “Thrive,” a Kaiser slogan.
“They’re really seeing an opportunity to use the economy for these cuts, but they’re making money,”said Mary Anne Beach, a psychologist and NUHW shop steward. “There is no justification.”
Because of staffing issues, Beach said, patients are having to wait longer between needed appointments.
At Kaiser in Walnut Creek, employees carried signs reading “Care Delayed, Care Denied” and “Some Cuts Never Heal.”
“Kaiser really understaffs its mental health units,” said psychologist Adam Front. “So we don’t have the resources that we need to provide the care people need.”
A Kaiser spokesman disagreed, saying the health system provides timely, high-quality mental health care. He noted that Kaiser received four stars, the highest rating possible, for mental health care from the state Office of the Patient Advocate’s annual report card.
“This work stoppage is about labor issues related to contract negotiations and benefits proposals,” said Dr. Don Mordecai, Kaiser’s director of mental health and chemical dependency services, in a prepared statement. “We strongly disagree with anyone who may claim this is about issues related to quality.”
Kaiser argues that such issues are best resolved at the bargaining table. It says it has been waiting for a union response to its first wage-and-benefit proposal for more than six months.
Kaiser “has demonstrated throughout its history that it is committed to providing its employees with highly desirable, market-leading salary and benefits,” said Gay Westfall, Kaiser’s senior vice president of human resources, in a prepared statement.
The company also maintains that the nurses’ contract prohibits sympathy strikes.
“Kaiser Permanente nurses received 5 percent raises for each of the past three years, and they have an excellent contract in place through 2014 that provides, among other provisions, wage increases twice each year,” Westfall said.
A union spokesman said that regardless of what is in the contract, sympathy strikes have been an accepted practice at Kaiser.
“There is a long history and precedent of workers striking in support of each other at Kaiser,” Idelson said.
The September walkout cost Kaiser’s Northern California region $14 million, “resources we would rather devote to our people, care programs and service,” Westfall said.
The California Hospital Association ran a full-page advertisement with a large photo of a crying baby in some newspapers Tuesday criticizing the nurses union for their sympathy strike.
“Sympathy for who? Not for patients,” the advertisement said. It noted that in 2010, the nurses union loaned NUHW $2 million.
“Make no mistake — this strike is not about patient care,” said C. Duane Dauner, president and CEO of the California Hospital Association, in a prepared statement. “It’s about (the California Nurses Association’s) ongoing attempts to grow its membership, increase its member dues and advance its aggressive political agenda. This union already rakes in nearly $61 million in annual member dues.”
CNA spokesman Chuck Idelson sharply criticized the hospital association and its advertisement. “There is no organization that is more representative of the 1 percent,” he said.
The nurses decided to wage a sympathy strike because of the proposed cutbacks and staffing issues for NUHW members, Idelson said.
“We use our resources to stand up for patients and workers’ standards,” Idelson said. “We don’t think, as wealthy as Kaiser is, it should be rolling back standards.”
The unions note that Kaiser’s CEO took home nearly $9 million in compensation in 2010 and other top managers enjoyed lucrative salaries, bonuses and perks.