SEIU 49 takes strike authorization vote for Kaiser negotiations

SEIU 49 President Meg Niemi, left, and Longview and Chief Union Steward Jamela Henderson, right, stand with Henderson's children and their picket signs at Kaiser Cascade Medical Part in Vancouver for a July 26 picket. SEIU is wrapped up in national contract negotiations with Kaiser Permanente. 

An overwhelming majority of union workers at Northwest Kaiser Permanente facilities voted to allow their union bargaining team to call for a strike if necessary in contract negotiations.

Employees aren’t expected to walk out until early October, when the existing contract expires, according to union officials.

However, union officials said they expect other Kaiser employees involved in the national contract talks to walk out, meaning the strike, whenever it begins, could balloon to 85,000 employees.

“That would be the largest nationwide strike in 20 years,” according to a union press release.

Service Employees International Union Local 49 represents about 4,500 Kaiser workers in Oregon and Southwest Washington, including about 150 Longview employees. Members include janitors, receptionists and medical assistants, among other support staff.

The union announced last week that 98% of its members working at Kaiser approved a strike authorization vote.

“With this vote, we’ve shown Kaiser management that we’re willing to do what it takes to protect our patients, our families and our futures,” according to an SEIU news release.

SEIU 49 President Meg Niemi told The Daily News Tuesday that the union started renegotiating its contract in 2018, but “Kaiser Permanente walked away from the bargaining table” in March that year.

“We have been attempting to bargain and get to an agreement with Kaiser for almost a year and a half,” Niemi said. “Now our members are really ready for Kaiser to live up to its commitments” as the best workplace in the healthcare industry.

In a statement sent to TDN Tuesday, Kaiser said the company is “continuing to work together” with the union toward an agreement.

“In the event SEIU Local 49 asks its members to strike, our first priority will be continuity of care for our patients and members,” the statement said.

Union officials said they are in an “escalating fight” with Kaiser over what they call unfair labor practices. The two groups are negotiating a new contract for wages and benefits, and members also want guarantees that jobs won’t be lost to outsourcing or automation.

Niemi added that the union wants to restore a failing Labor Management Partnership established in the 1990s in which Kaiser and the union “work together on the front lines to deliver the best patient care and the best jobs for employees.”

“What our members see (now) is that Kaiser rally wants to see something they call ‘partnership’ where they make all the decisions,” she said.

Jamela Henderson, the chief union steward for Longview, said she’s sensed that change over her 15-year career at Kaiser.

“Kaiser is a nonprofit organization, but it kind of feels like they’ve gotten away from that. They’ve become more of a for-profit atmosphere,” Henderson said. “It seems like Kaiser is putting executives above what we really stand for: Serving the community.”

A proposal by the company released on July 29 suggests a 4-year agreement that offers 2% raises annually in Oregon and Washington and a lump sum boost of 1% per year through 2022 — but a 15% pay cut for new hires, according to the SEIU 49 website. The union wants a 5-year contract that guarantees between 3% and 4% raises each year and maintains the current rate of pay for new hires.

“We represent front line folk, a number of them in an entry level position,” Niemi said. “(Kaiser’s offer) would put a lot of those jobs basically at minimum wage. ... To think they could have a qualified workforce when what they end up offering is close to a minimum wage job is hard to believe.”

Henderson said it’s “no secret that the CEO from Kaiser makes millions of dollars a year.” According to Medium, an online publishing company, Kaiser CEO Bernard Tyson made $16 million in 2017 — a $6 million boost over his 2016 salary.

“(SEIU) is looking for competitive wages that can help sustain these middle class jobs so people are able to feed their family and afford housing. ... What is the problem that we are not paying (fair) wages but our executives are making money hand over fist?” Henderson said.

Kaiser’s proposal also lacked a clause prohibiting the company from using automating jobs, according to the union. But Kaiser officials noted that the SEIU workforce has grow by 15% since 2019, and the company tries to “redeploy the affected employees” displaced by automated jobs.

“If retention is not feasible given the circumstances, we provide tools and assistance, including up to one year of salary and benefits equal to the affected employees’ then-current compensation, to support the affected employees and help them gain other employment opportunities,” said Kaiser spokesman Mike Foley.

In an Aug. 2 letter to employees, Kaiser officials said they are “disappointed” that bargaining is at a standstill. They noted that this is the first time in 22 years that the two groups have failed to reach an agreement over wages and benefits.

Kaiser’s Vice President John Nelson called the union’s threat of striking a “disruptive tactic ... designed to divide employees and mischaracterize Kaiser Permanente’s position.”

“To be clear, Kaiser Permanente has presented a contract proposal that would provide annual pay increases that would keep our employees compensated at higher-than-market averages and maintain excellent benefits,” Nelson said in a prepared statement on Aug. 13. “Contrary to the union’s claims, there are no pay cuts and no changes to our employees’ defined pension benefit under our proposal.”

Foley added that Kaiser SEIU employees are paid 26% above market competition. An average wage for an SEIU-represented employee was not available Tuesday.

Niemi said the union last met with Kaiser representatives on July 11. She said the groups are tentatively scheduled to meet again on Sept. 19.

“Our members’ number one priority is to make sure their patients are taken care of. … That’s why we are giving Kaiser lots of notice and a lot of time to resolve this, so hopefully a strike does’t have to happen,” Niemi said. “If it does happen, we will give Kaiser a 10-day notice. ... We hope they will make arrangements to make sure people are cared for.”

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