Healthcare workers in Oregon vote to authorize a strike against Kaiser

Nearly 3,400 healthcare workers from Kaiser Permanente in Oregon moved closer to hitting the picket lines this week after they voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike. The Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals said that 90 percent of its members, whose contracts expired on Sept. 30, voted; 96 percent favored a strike.

OFNHP Kaiser rally with signs

Now that a strike has been authorized, elected union leaders can call for a strike at any time. If a strike is called for, they will issue a 10-day advance notification to Kaiser Permanente; after 10 days have passed, workers will walk off the job. The OFNHP/AFT Local 5017 is part of the 52,000-member Alliance of Health Care Unions, which includes the AFT. The alliance covers Kaiser workers in eight states, many of whom have also authorized strikes.

The Alliance of Health Care Unions and Kaiser Permanente began national bargaining in April 2021. OFNHP says that primary issues are a lack of adequate staffing, which has reached crisis levels at Kaiser and other healthcare settings, and wages.

Instead of presenting proposals to solve the staffing crisis, OFNHP says that Kaiser executives have offered low wages and a “two-tiered” system that would mean new workers would make much less than their colleagues. OFNHP says these proposals would accelerate the staffing crisis, ensuring dangerous conditions in hospitals and clinics around Oregon.

“Their proposals are damaging and could set a standard for the country’s healthcare system,” says Mindy Schiebler, a cardiac nurse at Kaiser Sunnyside Medical Center in Clackamas. “It’s a move backward. If this gains traction, it could have ramifications for healthcare throughout the country because Kaiser is a healthcare leader,” she says. “These kinds of proposals could extend to other parts of the country. We should be moving forward to improve patient care.”

OFNHP members rally

Kaiser has said publicly that healthcare is increasingly unaffordable, and escalating wages are half of the cost of healthcare. To address future costs, Kaiser is proposing a market-based compensation structure for new employees to continue attracting and retaining workers. But OFNHP members disagree.

“[Kaiser] kept saying that they wanted to stay affordable and keep their operating costs down,” says Hannah Winchester, a home health physical therapist with Kaiser. “We are expensive, but we are worth it. If Kaiser starts cutting wages and benefits, we are not going to look attractive to new nurses and health professionals, and it will hurt us in the long run.”

“They make it seem as if they need to save for a rainy day, but this is it—this is the rainy day,” says Sarina Roher, a patient care coordinator at Kaiser Sunnyside.

Staffing, in particular, is in crisis, say OFNHP members. For years, Kaiser has implemented lean staffing to increase productivity, changing the working environment. Many say that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted ongoing staffing challenges. A recent union survey of Kaiser nurses and health professionals found that 42 percent of them are considering leaving the field entirely.

“We have worked very hard during COVID,” says Schiebler, noting that if new counterparts are offered less, it would be difficult to attract or retain new workers, “The pandemic has been a scary time. We worked in COVID units with one mask per week, but we showed up every day,” says Schiebler. “After all of those sacrifices and all of the rhetoric about us being heroes, now it doesn’t feel the same.”

Kaiser claims that they want to work out their differences with the alliance at the bargaining table, pointing to the 24-year history of partnership with the unions in the alliance; however, OFNHP says that in many of the recent bargaining sessions, Kaiser has refused to move on commonsense proposals, brought no proposals at all, or walked back proposals that they agreed to initially.

“When the partnership works, it’s beautiful, but we have to bring the discussions back to trust, respect and patients, “says Winchester. “Kaiser’s value compass has four components: best quality, best service, the best place to work, and most affordable. At the center of that compass is the patient. Without all four of those things weighted equally, we are not going to be able to do the work that we do for our patients,” she says. “We don’t want to strike. We don’t want to leave our patients, but we know if we accept this, it will be more dangerous for them.”

On Sept. 28, just before their contract ended, nearly 800 people rallied in front of Kaiser’s corporate office in downtown Portland. OFNHP members were joined by hundreds of supporters from the community and organizations in their fight for safe staffing and a fair contract.

With the possibility of a strike looming, OFNHP is urging Kaiser to change its confrontational behavior in contract negotiations to avert the action. OFNHP says that once Kaiser puts forward a proposal that does not endanger the community, they will reach an agreement.

Roher hopes to achieve a fair and respectable contract. “I want something we can be proud of and can build on,” she says. “I want to use the process that we agreed upon to move our work forward so that we all win—our members, management, and our patients.”

[Adrienne Coles]