Press "Enter" to skip to content

Kaiser workers strike

Healthcare workers held a 24-hour statewide strike last week over contract negotiations with Kaiser Permanente, which has been Mills College’s healthcare partner since 2009.

NUHW members, Kaiser’s mental health and optical employees, picket the hospital Jan 31. (Chantelle Panackia)

The Kaiser-run Mills College Student Health Center was not impacted by the strike.

“None of the employees at the Student Health Center are participating,” said Kim Baranek, Director of Wellness and Community Outreach Services. Baranek, the liason for student insurance carriers, helps students navigate the Kaiser Student Health Plan.

All Mills students have access to the Student Health Center on campus, and many students are enrolled in the Kaiser Student Health Plan. Student Kaiser members can be referred to specialty services at other Kaiser facilities like the Oakland Kaiser Hospital, which is a stop on the Mills shuttle route.

On Jan 31, the Oakland Kaiser Hospital was also the main picket line for striking East Bay healthcare workers.

The National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW), which represents Kaiser’s Northern California mental health and optical employees, said that 4,000 of its members went on strike.

NUHW members said they staged a strike to protest what they saw as Kaiser’s refusal to bargain in good faith toward a fair contract. Kaiser management, on the other hand, said they had been bargaining in good faith with NUHW for more than a year.

NUHW saw it differently.

“At a time when Kaiser is making record profits ($5.7 billion since the beginning of 2009)  and Kaiser executives are being paid like Fortune 500 CEOs (Kaiser CEO George Halvorson enjoyed nearly $9 million in total compensation in 2010), Kaiser is trying to force cuts on workers’ healthcare and retirement benefits,” NUHW stated on its website. “That’s not fair to workers or patients, and NUHW members are refusing to lie down and accept management’s ridiculous demands.”

Gay Westfall, Senior Vice President of Human Resources, released a statement saying the opposite.

“The union’s allegations that KP (Kaiser Permanente) is proposing to eliminate retirement benefits are simply untrue,” Westfall wrote. “KP has demonstrated throughout its history that it is committed to providing its employees with highly desirable, market-leading salary and benefits. We will continue to provide highly competitive benefits—including those designed to help our employees enjoy a secure and healthy retirement.”

Still, about 4,000 NUHW members went on strike. About 17,000 registered nurses from the California Nurses Association (CNA) and 650 Local 39 Stationary Engineers also walked out in sympathy. At 22,000 strong, it was the largest walkout in Kaiser’s history, according to the NUHW.

“That’s how the unions characterize it,” said Kaiser’s Media Relations Manager Marc Brown. ”We’re not calling it that.”

More than 66 percent of Kaiser’s nurses did not participate in the strike.  Some appointments and elective (optional, non-emergency) procedures were rescheduled, but hospitals, emergency and urgent care departments, and other medical centers remained open.

“Our first priority is the safety and care of our members and patients,” reads a statement on Kaiser’s website to all members, which includes Mills students on the Student Health Plan. “We’ve taken steps to make sure you will continue to receive high-quality care from a team of experienced doctors and other clinicians.”

Safety and high-quality care are the strikers’ concern as well.

NUHW has complained about staffing levels, arguing that patients often endure long waits for mental health appointments, reported the San Jose Mercury News. Because of staffing issues, patients are having to wait longer between needed appointments.

“Kaiser really understaffs its mental health units,” psychologist Adam Front told the San Jose Mercury News. “So we don’t have the resources that we need to provide the care people need.”

Kaiser updated its statement about five hours after the strike began, noting that most of its nurses “put their patients first and came to work this morning, rejecting the call from CNA to deliberately disrupt patient care for the second time in four months.”

In September, about 21,000 healthcare workers went on strike to protest proposed employee benefit cuts at 38 hospitals statewide, reported The Bay Citizen.

The Oakland Kaiser Hospital had also been an important East Bay picket line, and as the Mills shuttle made its rounds, this commuting Campanil reporter watched nurses in bright red scrubs carry signs with slogans like “Nurses Need Health Care Too.”

Last week, in response to the Jan. 31 strike, Westfall wrote, “We are disappointed in NUHW’s decision to strike. We recognize their legal right to conduct a strike, but believe differences are best resolved at the bargaining table.”

Jose Zabala, a Kaiser Oakland optician, told the San Jose Mercury News that NUHW is prepared to go back to the bargaining table, but he also said, “We’re prepared to strike and walk until June if necessary — as long as it takes to get a contract settled.”