Labor Union Pressures Kaiser Permanente with Protests Across the State

Union members employed by Kaiser Permanente protest outside Kaiser's Oakland Medical Center on February 24. (Laura Klivans/KQED)

Ever since Dwayne Ealy was a kid, he really wanted to work for Kaiser Permanente.

"I grew up right here by Kaiser Oakland, in this neighborhood, so I’d walk by Kaiser every day," he said while rallying outside Kaiser's Oakland Medical Center. "I went to Oakland Technical High School, it’s right down the street. I wanted to work at Kaiser a long time."

After burning out on his first career as a youth counselor, Ealy finally did get a Kaiser job, as an Integrated Courier at a distribution center in Livermore. He delivers medications to Kaiser Permanente hospitals and pharmacies.

"It’s a good job, and I can do things for my family, and be successful in my community," Ealy said. "People are happy to work for Kaiser."

Ealy's enjoyed the work so much that he's been at Kaiser Permanente for 13 years, his longest stint with any one employer. Since the fall, however, Ealy senses his position is on shaky ground. His fears that his work will be outsourced led him to this protest outside the hospital two weeks ago.

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Union workers employed by Kaiser Permanente are staging a series of protests across California. They say the health care provider is thriving financially, but still plans to outsource some jobs, and cut wages for some new hires.

Ealy joined more than a hundred other employees who chanted and marched. Some dressed in hospital scrubs, others in street clothes, and many in the deep purple color associated with their union, Service Employees International Union - United Healthcare Workers West (SEIU-UHW). They chanted "Who's got the power? We got the power! What kind of power? Union power!" The rally was one of 32 demonstrations that SEIU-UHW is organizing around California between Feb. 14 - Mar. 9. 

SEIU-UHW represents roughly 55,000 positions at Kaiser facilities across the state, including medical assistants, housekeeping aides, and pharmacy clerks. 

The union's contract with the health care provider expires in September, and union representatives say Kaiser is considering 20 percent wage cuts for new hires in the Central Valley, and ten percent cuts in the Sacramento area. The union points out that in 2017 Kaiser made $3.8 billion, after expenses.   

"We work hard for Kaiser, Kaiser you’re making a lot of money," Ealy said. "Don’t be unfair to us."

Kaiser plans to hire an outside company to take over storage and distribution of pharmaceuticals in Oakland, and representatives say they fear the loss of 55 jobs there.

But John Nelson, Vice President of Communications at Kaiser Permanente, wrote in a statement that "The exact number of positions affected by this decision has not yet been determined."

He  called the union's claims "premature" and potentially wrong. Nelson also wrote that when there are job changes, Kaiser works to "reassign and retain our employees first."

Union members say they have information that more than 700 other jobs around the state are threatened too, including positions at call centers in Southern California, and warehouse jobs like Ealy’s in Livermore.

Nelson stated that Kaiser will not be laying off 700 call center workers, but will "improve our call center agents' ability to manage member calls and schedule appointments across Southern California." He added that the health care provider will make "additional improvements and changes in the future," but will communicate those ahead of time.

Nelson also wrote that the union's claims about outsourcing of jobs in the Livermore distribution center are wrong.

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Contract negotiations between SEIU-UHW and Kaiser Permanente begin at the end of March, ahead of the current contract's expiration in September. 

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