National Bargaining Training - Oakland Marriott City Center - Oakland, California - April 18, 2019 Image Courtesy of Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions (CKPU)

Kaiser Permanente gets into new negotiations with workers’ unions

on April 24, 2019

Representatives from health giant Kaiser Permanente and unions representing its workers returned to the bargaining table late last week to resume contract talks with over 80,000 union members across the nation. Some 63,800 of those members are from California, and they are asking their employer for a renewal of their national agreement, which expired last September.

The Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Union (CKPU) represents 11 labor unions in various states. Five of those unions represent California workers—the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE) Local 20, the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local 29, the Service Employees International Union–United Healthcare Workers West (SEIU-UHW), the Office and Professional Employees International Union (OPEIU) Local 30, and the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 121RN. Together, they represent those in occupations ranging from registered nurses to food professionals.

According to Tamara Rubyn, CKPU’s secretary treasurer, national bargaining with Kaiser began last year. But the two sides disagree over what happened next. According to Rubyn, in March, 2018, the health giant “suddenly decided that they did not want to continue bargaining and walked away from the table.”

John Nelson, Kaiser Permanente’s vice president of communications, disputed in an email statement the idea that the company “walked away.” Instead, he said, some union members withdrew from negotiations.  “In late March of last year, the night before the start of bargaining with the Coalition for a new National Agreement, 21 unions withdrew from the Coalition due to an internal union dispute,” he wrote. “We worked for months to find ways to move forward, in the wake of this split in the Coalition.”

Rubyn said that Kaiser officials agreed to only return to the bargaining table if CKPU leaders signed a precondition letter, which, according to a press release sent out by the union in late March, involved “a ban on employees speaking out on patient care issues and engaging in political activity as a condition to start bargaining.” Political activity carried out by union workers last year ranged from protests against the outsourcing of jobs to better mental health care staffing and services for patients.

Rubyn said that the demand for a precondition document mimics a tactic that would be used by private employers that aren’t unionized. “It was a shock to us that they put that forward, because we are in partnership and we work collaboratively on issues and interests from both sides,” she said.

Negotiations remained at a standstill, and in May, 2018, the union coalition filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board over what they called in a press release Kaiser’s “refusal to bargain,” saying that the health giant’s proposed ban “violated federal law,” specifically the law protecting good faith bargaining between employers and the employees’ union representative. A hearing on the complaint has been postponed to August 20, taking place in Oakland.

In another email statement, Nelson said the reason for asking for the precondition letter was to maintain peace between both parties. “For unions that choose to engage with Kaiser Permanente in real partnership, we have proposed that we mutually agree not to push legislation or ballot initiatives which are designed to harm another member of the partnership. This has nothing to do with free speech or advocacy rights of our employees. Twenty-two other unions which represent Kaiser Permanente employees have agreed to this commonsense approach to labor-management partnership,” he wrote.

Nevertheless, Kaiser officials agreed to drop these preconditions to bargaining this March. When asked why company officials decided to lift their demand for a precondition letter, a Kaiser spokesperson redirected Oakland North to Nelson’s previous statement about the letter.

Last week, discussion about bargaining resumed as Kaiser officials and the union coalition met in Oakland on Wednesday and Thursday for training in a new “interest-based bargaining process.” According to a joint press statement released in March, this kind of bargaining process will allow “all parties to raise concerns, address challenges, and reach agreements” in the “most effective and efficient means.”

In his statement, Nelson described what company officials hope will happen next. “Using the interest-based bargaining process—which seeks a win-win solution through collaboration—bargaining with the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions will be held during multiple sessions over the coming weeks,” he wrote. “Our goal is to achieve a mutually beneficial agreement that advances the interests of our organization, our employees who are represented by the Coalition unions, and—most importantly—the members and patients we serve. We have pledged to bargain in good faith and we are committed to reach fair and equitable agreements that provide our employees with excellent, market-competitive benefits and wages.”

Rubyn said that workers have been bargaining over their national agreement with Kaiser since the year 2000, and that the agreement is renewed every 5 years. They are currently asking for protections against future salary cuts and for a wage increase each year of the contract. “As far as the wages and the benefits go, we’re going to maintain what we have now with no reduction. That’s our goal, and to assure that employees get a fair increase on their current wages,” she said.

In addition, she said, during the upcoming negotiations they will be having “serious talks about the workforce of the future.” With automation becoming more common, they hope to ensure there will be a good balance of tasks performed by machines and those performed by people, and that workers will receive appropriate training for new technologies. Both sides of the negotiations need to think about “how that looks for existing employees at Kaiser,” said Rubyn, “and how we can create new work or new jobs for folks with the advancement of technology.”  

“We’re hopeful that we will get resolution to a good national agreement by the end,” said Rubyn. “If not, we will continue to bargain until we do.”

The first official bargaining session is set to take place in May.

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