Kaiser Permanente Health Care Workers Protest as Contract Negotiations Stall

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Health care workers from Kaiser Permanente held a protest in Oakland on Sept. 2, 2019. Negotiations for a new contract stalled and there's a potential strike in October. (Laura Klivans/KQED)

About 1,000 health care workers protested in Oakland Monday to show Kaiser Permanente they’re serious about a potential strike in October, after negotiations for a new contract stalled.

Kaiser Permanente employees and their families rallied at Mosswood Park in Oakland and then marched to Kaiser’s Oakland Medical Center. The streets surrounding the hospital, at West MacArthur Boulevard and Broadway, shut down as protesters peacefully blocked traffic.

Employees represented by the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions have been without a contract since September of last year. They said Kaiser is not bargaining fairly with them and is outsourcing jobs that would otherwise go to union members.

This impacts patient care, union members said. Sonya Allen-Smith is a radiology technician at the hospital. She has worked for Kaiser for 10 years and says things have changed recently.

"We see the change in higher patient wait times in the hospital, less time that we can give to patients at times," she said.

Wearing a SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West T-shirt, Union President Dave Regan told the crowd during the rally that the workers' fight is simple.

"Are you with the workers? Are you with the people? Are you with the community? Are you with the caregivers? Or are you with the millionaires?" Regan said.

Edmund Chan, Kaiser Permanente's senior vice president, said the health care organization is also committed to patient care and working with unions.

"Our latest proposal is creating competitive wages and we are maintaining strong benefits for our employees," said Chan. "We’ve put across-the-table guaranteed wage increases over the life of the next contract through 2022."

The unions and representatives from Kaiser Permanente will sit down again to bargain on Sept. 16. If no agreement is reached, the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions said they will strike at the start of October.

Employees say Kaiser has been increasing its use of outsourcing. Allen-Smith, the radiology technician, said that impacts local communities.

"Right now people can’t even afford to live in the Bay Area," said Allen-Smith. "So now we talking outsourcing jobs — where are these people gonna come from? Are they gonna work two or three jobs? Are they commuting from a larger distance to take care of our members? It’s not right."

The unions said Kaiser made more than $5 billion in profits in the last two quarters. Among the workers, there's a feeling that Kaiser Permanente, which is a nonprofit, has gone astray and is too focused on profit.

Chan called Monday's protest a "publicity stunt."

"It’s unfortunate that today’s being used by some of our unions to stage a planned civil disobedience, and quite frankly a publicity stunt, that’s taking away city and police resources," he said. "We remain committed to meeting and being at the bargaining table to create a contract for our employees that makes sense for all parties."