Kaiser Permanente mental health workers on strike in California in 2018.
Kaiser Permanente mental health workers on strike in California in 2018. Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Roughly 3,400 Kaiser Permanente healthcare workers in Oregon and Southwest Washington along with tens of thousands of workers in California have announced their intent to strike over a new contract proposal on the morning of November 15.

Kaiser workers represented by the Oregon Federation of Nursing and Health Professionals (OFNHP) have been building towards a strike for months after contract negotiations stalled earlier this fall—and after an agreement between Kaiser and the Alliance of Healthcare Unions, which includes OFNHP and a number of other local unions, expired on September 30.

OFNHP workers voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike in early October, and have been preparing to set a strike date since then. Kaiser has also been preparing for the possibility of a strike, soliciting replacement workers through postings on online job search sites.

Negotiations between Kaiser and union representatives continued throughout October, but without significant progress.

“I wish I could tell you that things have changed,” said Hannah Winchester, a home health physical therapist and member of the professional unit bargaining team. “I wish I could tell you that we’ve had meaningful conversations. But it still doesn't seem like Kaiser is getting it.”

Kaiser’s initial proposal was to give workers a raise of just one percent and create a new two-tier compensation system that would see new hires receive significantly lower wages than existing employees.

The company last week raised that offer to a two percent raise along with a two percent signing bonus, but continued to insist upon the two-tier compensation system — an offer that registered nurse first assistant Nicholas Eng characterized as “the slightest concession while retaining the most unacceptable aspect of their proposal.”

According to OFNHP officials, the offer would exacerbate existing staffing shortages that have plagued Kaiser facilities in the Portland metro area since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and left nurses and other healthcare professionals overworked.

Workers feel that being offered such a meager raise immediately after all of their work to help patients through the worst months of the pandemic is a sign of disrespect. The Alliance of Healthcare Unions is pushing for a four percent raise, no two-tier compensation system, and language that addresses the staffing issues.

Eng said that when he was hired at Kaiser in 2015, there were 13 people on his team at Kaiser’s Westside hospital. Soon, that team will have only seven members. Eng said the pandemic only strengthened workers’ resolve, with an internal union survey finding that more than 40 percent of OFNHP nurses are considering leaving healthcare entirely.

“They patronized us calling us heroes during the pandemic, and made signs, and did all this performative stuff, and then when it comes [time] to talk about a contract, when there’s a staffing crisis not just within our walls but within the country, I think everybody recognizes how bad their proposals are,” he said.

Kaiser has countered that its employees represented by OFNHP already make 27 percent above the average market wage, and senior vice president of human resources Arlene Peasnall said in a September statement that, “At the heart of our dispute is the fact that health care is increasingly unaffordable and escalating wages are half of the cost of health care.”

But workers take issue with Peasnall’s claim, blaming the unaffordability of healthcare in the U.S., as many health economists do, on the country’s aging population and corporate-dominated healthcare system.

“The only people that are being asked to have their wages cut are the front line healthcare workers,” Winchester said. “They’re not asking managers, they’re not asking CEOs, they’re just asking us. I’m wondering why staying affordable is only our responsibility.”

Kaiser, in any case, remains in an enviable financial position. The company made more than $2 billion in profit in 2020 and is expected to do even better this year; it also has more than $40 billion in reserve. It was secure enough last year that it returned $500 million in CARES Act funds to the federal government.

Workers were required to give Kaiser ten days of notice before striking in order to give Kaiser sufficient time to recruit replacement workers or move patients to new facilities so they can continue to receive care.

Now, that notice has been delivered. If the two sides cannot reach an agreement in the next ten days, the strike will begin at 6 a.m. on November 15.

Eng said that he is prepared for a strike to last months. A strike fund for OFNHP workers set up through GoFundMe has already raised more than $5,000 of a $100,000 goal, with fundraising ongoing.

OFNHP workers got a boost earlier this week, when the more than 15,000 nurses represented by the Oregon Nurses Association announced that they would not cross a picket line to serve as replacement workers for Kaiser during any potential strike.

“Hospital administrators have created a staffing crisis across the state,” Lynda Pond, President of the ONA Board of Directors, said in a statement. “Although a strike is always a last resort, ONA agrees with the nurses and health care workers at OFNHP; Kaiser must put patients before profits and settle a fair contract.”

The current dispute between Kaiser and the Alliance of Healthcare Unions is a significant break for a company that has for more than two decades participated in a highly-regarded labor-management partnership.

But according to Eng, that partnership has been in decay since he arrived at the company six years ago.

“I can say over the six years that I’ve been working for them, I’ve seen nothing but a decline in actual partnership and a distortion of what that partnership was conceived to be,” he said.

Now, in a year of renewed labor militancy across industries and across the country, this potential strike promises to reorient labor relations at Kaiser.

“We've all heard of Striketober, and now I guess it's going to be Strikevember as well,” Winchester said. “But I think we are only one of a large group that is finally finding their voice in making sure that we have a say in what happens in the workplace. I have no idea how long this is going to take—but we all see what the risk is if we don't take this opportunity now.”