Georgia-based Kaiser Permanente workers vote to authorize strike

ajc.com

Unions have tangled with management over proposed wages, benefits

Health care workers from Kaiser Permanente’s Georgia locations voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike as unions continued to butt heads with management over pay and other benefits.

Some 96% of nurses, pharmacists and other health care and technical staff who are members of the Suwanee-based United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1996 voted over the last week to authorize the work stoppage, the union announced Monday.

The strike authorization does not mean Georgia workers will walk off the job — at least not yet. The union is required to give Kaiser 10 days notice before a work stoppage, though officials can call for a strike at any point during the bargaining process.

“Striking is the most powerful tool we have as workers,” Valerie Barnhart, political and communications director for UFCW Local 1996, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “But it’s also the most serious, especially in a health care field. It’s something we take very seriously, and we (thought) about it very seriously before we actually did call for it.”

Workers are furious over a proposal from Kaiser that would implement a two-tiered wage system giving new hires substantially lower pay and fewer perks. Staffers want to maintain the current compensation structure.

They’d also like Kaiser to agree to higher cost-of-living increases for the next several years and commit to hiring more nurses as the coronavirus pandemic continues to stretch workers thin.

Kaiser and the Alliance of Health Care Unions, which represents 21 unions covering more than 50,000 workers across the country, are continuing the bargaining process, which has dragged on since April.

A Kaiser spokesperson said the parties have made progress in many key areas and that the company “extended an initial economic offer with wage increases and no takeaways to the current retirement plan or our excellent, market-leading benefits.”

“The proposed wage increases are on top of the already market-leading pay and benefits our employees receive, as confirmed by independent wage surveys and the government’s own data compiled by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services,” said Ravae Graham, a senior communications consultant.

Graham said Kaiser’s priority is “to provide our members with high-quality, safe care.”

“In the event of any kind of work stoppage, our facilities will be staffed by our physicians along with trained and experienced managers and contingency staff,” Graham said. “While we understand the bargaining tactics being used, we believe we will come together and find a mutually beneficial solution.”

Under Georgia’s right-to-work law, employees of a company are not required to join a union to get a job. Barnhart said UFCW Local 1996 represents 2,450 health care and technical Kaiser staff in Georgia, excluding doctors and management, even if those workers choose not to be members of the union. Nationwide, the UFCW represents 1.3 million members in fields like grocery and retail stores, food processing and health care and manufacturing.

The news came three weeks after Kaiser colleagues in California and Oregon endorsed a similar strike.

“This is a time when companies like Kaiser Permanente should be investing in our essential healthcare workers, not creating a race to the bottom for the workers who keep us healthy and safe,” Steve Lomax, president of UFCW Local 1996, said Monday.

Kaiser is one of the country’s largest health care providers. It has 26 public-facing locations in Georgia, with an additional four worksites focused on support and IT.

Georgia is one of the country’s least unionized states. Less than 5 percent of workers here were members of a union in 2020, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. Only six other states were less unionized.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.