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Potential strike looms at Kaiser Permanente as employees approve work stoppage

The strike authorization vote is intended to increase pressure on the health care consortium as workers seek better pay and staffing
SEIU Local 49 President Meg Niemi speaks during an event Thursday Sept. 14, 2023 in Southeast Portland with over 100 union members and supporters. | JAKE THOMAS/THE LUND REPORT
September 14, 2023

Workers at Kaiser Permanente in Oregon and southwest Washington signaled on Wednesday that they’re prepared to join what could be a multi-state work stoppage at the health care consortium over wages and staffing. 

Service Employees International Union Local 49 announced Thursday morning that its over 4,000 Kaiser workers in the region voted to authorize a strike. Kaiser and a national coalition of unions representing more than 85,000 workers in seven states and the District of Columbia have been locked in increasingly tense negotiations since April.

The union represents dental assistants, lab techs, housekeepers, phlebotomists, dietary workers, schedulers and others at Kaiser in Oregon and southwest Washington. They’ve complained that their wages aren’t keeping up with the rising cost of living and are resulting in inadequate staffing that’s affecting patient care. 

“We have been bringing forward solutions to solve things that we know are literally at a crisis level,” SEIU Local 49 President Meg Niemi said at an event Thursday morning. “And what we have heard from Kaiser is an inability to answer those questions with ‘yes.’”

Over 100 workers and supporters wearing the union’s purple stood next to Niemi, who called on Kaiser to approve its proposal to create an education pipeline that’ll speed up hiring for difficult-to-fill jobs. She also criticized Kaiser for sitting on $120 billion in investments while refusing to agree to the union’s demands. 

Kaiser spokesperson Debbie Karman responded with a statement stressing that the strike authorization vote does not mean a work stoppage is imminent. 

“It is a disappointing action considering our progress at the bargaining table,” reads the statement. “Unfortunately, this year, throughout our negotiations we have seen Coalition leaders attempt to rally their unions’ members to threaten a strike despite important progress made through negotiations.”

Kaiser hired over 29,000 new employees last year and is on pace to hire even more in 2023 despite health care labor shortages, according to the statement. The health care consortium has also offered competitive benefits and wage increases between 10% and 14% across the board, according to the statement. 

Following UPS’s new agreement with the Teamsters union, the Kaiser negotiations are now the largest labor negotiations with a single employer in the U.S., according to a press statement. An SEIU affiliate representing 60,000 Kaiser workers in California also voted to authorize a strike Thursday. Kaiser workers in Colorado voted last week to authorize a strike. 

Niemi said that the strike can happen any time after the current contract between Kaiser and the unions expires on Sept. 30. But she said that workers do not want to strike. 

You can reach Jake Thomas at [email protected] or via Twitter @jakethomas2009.