SPOKANE — Kaiser Permanente health care workers in Washington are preparing for a possible November strike with an authorization vote.
The SEIU Healthcare 1199NW union represents 3,000 Kaiser Permanente workers statewide across 36 facilities — including 120 employees among four Spokane-area facilities. These workers include nurses, medical assistants, technicians, housekeeping staff, physical therapists, social workers, community resource specialists and others Kaiser Permanente employees across Washington.
The statewide contract expires at the end of October, and negotiation for a new contract began in June. After a bargaining session Monday, union leaders have opted to ask their membership for a strike authorization.
At issue in the contract negotiations with the health insurance giant are what workers allege are “unsafe staffing levels” causing “dangerously long wait times, misdiagnoses, and neglect,” according to a news release.
Marie Neumayer, a Spokane-area Kaiser Permanente medical assistant and member of the bargaining team, said a focus of the negotiations has been higher wages.
“We need to let (Kaiser) know that we are serious about this,” Neumayer said. “We are serious. We do need a wage increase. Most of the facilities around us … have had an increased wage in order to retain the employees there. And we need to do that here.
“This is the reason why we stand up. This is the reason why we have unions — to have our voice to be heard. We’re all in unity, and they’re not listening. We we have to stand up … to have quality wages, quality benefits. So that we can take care of our patients.”
SEIU has submitted an unfair labor practice complaint against Kaiser, alleging the company has refused to provide information needed by the union negotiators.
“In the past with our bargaining, it was a back-and-forth,” Neumayer said. “We would talk and have open communication. Now, the door is shut on us. They don’t even talk to us. They come in for a few minutes, and then they leave.”
Should a majority of union members in the bargaining unit approve the authorization, the negotiating team will have the authority to call a strike if negotiations break down. A strike authorization vote does not mean a strike will definitely occur.
Neumayer said a strike is “very likely.”
A Kaiser Permanente spokesperson said in a statement the strike authorization vote does not “reflect any breakdown in bargaining” or “indicate a strike is imminent.”
“Kaiser Permanente Washington is committed to bargaining in good faith to reach a fair and equitable agreement that supports our employees and patients and furthers our mission of providing high-quality care,” Kaiser spokesperson Jessica Knapp said.
“Our priority is to reach an agreement that ensures we can continue to provide market-competitive pay and benefits. We are confident we’ll reach an agreement before our regional agreement expires on Oct. 31st that strengthens our position as a best place to work and ensures that the high-quality care our members expect from us remains affordable and easy to access.”
She also added the company “greatly respect and value our employees who deliver on our mission every day.”
Members will conduct the vote from Wednesday through Oct. 12. According to a spokesperson from the union, the strike would take place in early November should it be needed.
The move of the Washington state bargaining unit mirrors labor action occurring nationwide with the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions, which represents more than 85,000 health care workers in seven states and the District of Columbia.
Washington state workers are also part of this coalition, which negotiates a separate contract along different provisions than the local contract.
This contract expires at the end of September, and nationwide Kaiser Permanente workers have approved a three-day strike from Wednesday through Oct. 6.
Washington workers in the local bargaining unit will not join this nationwide strike because their contact is through the end of October. If local workers do strike in November, their nationwide union partners are planning a “sympathy strike.”
“They will go out with us. All of Kaiser will go out in November and stand with us. Because they believe that everybody should have parity. Everybody should have quality wages,” Neumayer said.