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Kaiser Permanente health care workers vote to authorize strike in Northwest

Necia Cage Pankey, center, a frontline worker at Kaiser Permanente’s Sunnyside Medical Center, chants with the crowd at a press conference held at the Oregon AFL-CIO offices in Portland, Sept. 14, 2023. The 4,000 SEIU Local 49 members have authorized a strike if an agreement is not in place by Sept. 30, when the current contract expires.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
Necia Cage Pankey, center, a frontline worker at Kaiser Permanente’s Sunnyside Medical Center, chants with the crowd at a press conference held at the Oregon AFL-CIO offices in Portland, Sept. 14, 2023. The 4,000 SEIU Local 49 members have authorized a strike if an agreement is not in place by Sept. 30, when the current contract expires.

About 4,000 Kaiser Permanente health care workers in Oregon and Washington have voted to authorize a strike.

The workers are members of the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions, which represents more than 85,000 health care workers in seven states and the District of Columbia.

In Oregon, the coalition represents service and clerical workers, including certified nursing assistants, food service workers, housekeeping staff, schedulers and others, through SEIU Local 49.

The strike authorization vote passed with 98% support. They announced the results of that vote Thursday outside union offices in Portland.

The threat of any strike is still weeks off. The workers’ contract expires Sept. 30, and the two sides have two final bargaining sessions next week. Health care workers in Oregon are required to give 10 days’ notice prior to striking.

“Nobody wants to strike. This is not something that anybody takes lightly,” said Alan Dubinsky, a spokesman for the union. “It’s within Kaiser’s power to prevent that by coming back to the table setting a fair contract that addresses staffing, issues with patient care, and makes sure that folks have livable wages.”

The union alleges that systemwide under-staffing is boosting Kaiser’s profits but hurting patients by leading to longer wait times and mistaken diagnoses. Speaking at a press conference Thursday, union members said they want to see Kaiser hire 10,000 more workers across the company.

A spokesperson for Kaiser Permanente disputed that claim, saying Kaiser has weathered the nationwide shortage of health care workers better than most health systems.

“While health care organizations have been experiencing an average employee turnover rate of 21.4% Kaiser Permanente’s turnover rate is only 8.5%,” the spokesperson wrote.

Kaiser called the strike authorization vote “disappointing” and said it had happened in spite of progress at the negotiating table.

Management’s proposals have included cumulative wage increases of between 10% and 14% over the life of the multi-year contract, as well as a $21 minimum wage across Kaiser facilities.

“We take any threat to disrupt care for our members seriously and have comprehensive plans to ensure continued access to needed health care services, should a strike occur later this year,” the spokesperson wrote.

Editor’s note: Kaiser Permanente is an OPB sponsor.
Copyright 2023 Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Amelia Templeton