By Juan Pablo Pardo
Translated by Rosa S. Valle
The largest healthcare worker strike in U.S. history unfolded between October 4th and October 7th. It involved 75,000 workers from the healthcare provider Kaiser Permanente, one of the largest in the country, who were demanding salary increases, more recruiting, and better working conditions.
On Wednesday, October 4th, at 6 AM, 75,000 workers at Kaiser Permanente, one of the largest healthcare service providers in the United States, initiated a 3-day strike, marking the largest healthcare worker strike in the history of the northern country. Among the striking workers were nurses, home health care attendants, receptionists, radiologist, X-ray technicians, surgeons, pharmacist, and emergency technicians.
The strike was called by a coalition of 8 unions that operate within Kaiser Permanente in various states, primarily in California, comprising approximately 85,000 workers, which is approximately 40% of the total Kaiser Permanente workforce. The strike was called after the union contract expired on September 30th, in demand of wage increases, more recruiting due to a personnel shortage, and improved working conditions.
One of the key demands of the union coalition revolves around wage improvement, with requests for a 6.5% increase in the first two years of the agreement and 5.75% over the following two years. Currently, the company is far from meeting these numbers, offering 4% and 3%, and even less in some areas.
Another significant issue is the extreme exhaustion experienced by the workers who have made enormous efforts since the pandemic, dealing with a significant increase in workload and diminishing staff. Specifically, the coalition is demanding the accelerated hiring of 10,000 new workers to ensure patient care is not compromised and to address healthcare staff burnout and overwork. They are also demanding protection against subcontracting and labor precarization.
The unions assert that the staff shortage led to increased profits for Kaiser Permanente at the expense of workers and patients. They also denounce anti-union practices and bad-faith negotiations. Meanwhile, the company’s CEO earns over $15.4 million.
Kaiser Permanente, in a statement, asserted its willingness to “continue negotiating with the coalition” until a “fair and equitable agreement is reached”. However, the company issued a statement on its website expressing disappointment that some unions called for employee participation in labor strikes, attacking worker’s right to strike.
Kaiser Permanente operates differently from the more common U.S. healthcare models, where services are paid for individually, instead of its “members” paying fees to the company for access to healthcare services. Kaiser is one of the largest healthcare insurers and operates in the country, serving nearly 13 million people and managing 39 hospitals and over 700 medical offices.
On its website, the major union in the sector, SEIU UHW, summed up the demands: Will Kaiser acknowledge the cost of the pandemic, the staffing crisis, and record inflation in its workload and accept a respectful wage increase for all? Will Kaiser rectify the perverse and failed PSP program that rewarded managers and executives for financial losses and left frontline caregivers behind? Will Kaiser reverse its plan to disrupt the lives of hundreds of revenue cycle workers by subcontracting the work to a for-profit, low-wage company? Will Kaiser grow as a high-quality healthcare provider, offering unionized wages and benefits, or as a cost-cutting, non-unionized company, reducing costs?
The Kaiser Permanente Union Coalition had promised last month that it would be “the largest healthcare worker strike in U.S. history” and threatened to launch a “longer and stronger” strike in November when another Kaiser contract expires in Washington, which could bring even more workers into the fight.
Finally, on Friday, October 13th, the Kaiser Permanente Union Coalition announced that they had reached a tentative agreement with the company, addressing many of the demands. The agreement will be voted by the members starting on October 18th.
With these three days of strike, healthcare workers join the massive wave of labor struggles sweeping across the entire country, with strikes by auto workers, writers, actors, public employees, social workers, hotel workers, and many more. Union resurgence in the United States is a significant phenomenon, demonstrating the strength of workers in the country, with substantial actions and massive participation in strikes, picket lines, and protests.