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Members of the coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions, which represent about 40% of the employees of the Oakland-based health care giant, are ready to authorize the use of a strike if negotiations with their employer break down.

As voting continues, the coalition’s largest union of workers — 58,000 Californians represented by the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West — gave its blessing to a strike by a margin of 98% to 2%, the local announced Thursday .

“For weeks, Kaiser has been sending us messages telling us to decline a strike,” said Miriam De La Paz, labor and delivery unit secretary at Kaiser’s medical center in Downey. “Their millionaire executives implied that we represent the delays in care that our patients experience and ignored the fact that our families are increasingly struggling to keep up with the rising cost of living. Instead, workers are protesting short staffing and inadequate pay, and we will go on strike if Kaiser does not stop committing unfair labor practices.

The coalition filed a dozen unfair labor practice charges against Kaiser with the National Labor Relations Board. The unions allege Kaiser failed to provide regional operating margins and other information that would help evaluate mandatory bargaining issues and that company negotiators tried to force the coalition to limit the size of its bargaining team.

As part of a long statement Kaiser officials said that they will work hard for a settlement in the two negotiation sessions scheduled for next week.

“Our priority is to reach an agreement that ensures we can continue to provide market competitive wages and excellent benefits,” company officials said. “We are confident that we will reach an agreement before the national agreement expires on 30 September which will strengthen our position as the best place to work and ensure that we deliver the high quality care that our members expect from us remains affordable and easily accessible.”

Strike voting authorizes action after September 30

Other unions in the 88,000-member coalition have also said they are ready to walk out. Two weeks ago, about 3,000 Colorado workers, members of SEIU Local 105, voted 99% to 1% to approve the strike over unfair labor practices. Roughly 4,000 workers in Oregon and Washington also recently voted 98% to 2% in favor.

These votes do not mean that the unions will strike, but they allow the executive council of the coalition to take that step any time after September 30. American regulations require the coalition to give Kaiser a 10-day notice before a strike begins.

Workers in the coalition have told The Bee there is a shortage of workers that has resulted in patients waiting a long time for appointments, medications, X-rays, hospital room assignments and other vital patient services.

Earlier this year, Kaiser announced premium increases of as much as 15%, SEIU-UHW said, but these price increases will not come with improvements in care because the company is not making necessary changes to recruit and retain workers. SEIU-UHW said Kaiser is:

Demoralizing workers by lowering their performance bonuses while paying top dollar to managers and directors who do not deal directly with patients.

Offering starting wages for some entry-level positions that don’t even compete with fast food and retail jobs in the high-cost, urban centers where Kaiser operates.

Postponing wage increases that have failed to keep up with the rising cost of living in the past.

Kaiser officials said the union’s claims about premium increases are misleading, explaining that inflationary pressures are driving up costs.

“Healthcare costs are increasing due to increased and delayed needs for care during the pandemic, large increases in the cost of drugs and supplies, and increased labor costs due to worker shortages and wage increases,” company officials said. “Wages make up more than half of US health care costs.”

Kaiser leaders challenge union narrative

Kaiser management said they have no plan to cut performance bonuses either. There have been times in the past when employees wouldn’t have received a performance bonus if the company didn’t meet its financial goals, so Kaiser is looking to put a minimum pay rate in place to make sure that doesn’t happen. The union, the company said, wants a guaranteed payment regardless of performance, and that would defeat the purpose of the program.

As for wages, Kaiser said, company negotiators have proposed a minimum wage of $21 an hour, higher in some areas and roles. The union has said it wants a $25 an hour minimum wage in the company.

“We are leaders in wages and employee benefits in every market we are in. In fact, our philosophy is to provide compensation that provides wages above the local market – at or up to 10% above market – to attract the best employees attract and retain,” said company leaders in the statement.

Last week, company leaders said, they made a proposal to the coalition that includes across-the-board wage increases of between 10% and 14% over four years — with additional Southern California severance payments — on top of current wages. many cases already significantly above the market rate for similar jobs.

The coalition said that in the first six months of this year, Kaiser made a profit of $3 billion and is offering them wage increases of 2%, 3% or 4% a year that in no way match the skyrocketing costs of inflation will keep up.

By offering different proposals in different regions, the coalition said, it hopes to divide and conquer the business, but the negotiating team remained united and agreed to reject the proposal.

If the coalition goes on strike, the move will affect 7,000 SEIU-UHW members at Kaiser medical centers and office buildings around the Sacramento region, including two medical centers in Sacramento and one in Roseville.

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Cathie Anderson covers economic mobility for The Bee’s Equity Lab. She joined The Sacramento Bee in 2002, with roles including business columnist and features editor. She previously worked at newspapers including the Dallas Morning News, Detroit News and Austin American-Statesman.

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