Kaiser workers strike in protest of new contract

January 31, 2012 5:27:34 PM PST
Kaiser Permanente employees in Northern California held a one-day strike Tuesday in protest of a new contract by one of the unions.

They said it would be the biggest walkout in Kaiser history with up to 21,000 people participation, but those numbers never materialized. Business continued as usual inside but outside, it was noisy.

That noise was the reaction to proposals for a new contract between Kaiser Permanente and the union representing mental health and optical employees. The National Union of Healthcare Workers claims it is about patient care, wages, and retirement takeaways.

"But they not only said no to those issues, but they then introduced a series of draconian cuts to the benefit plan," said Clement Papazian, a clinical worker.

"We made our first, best attempt at placing something on the table that we think is appropriate and we haven't got a response from them," said Kaiser East Bay Vice President Nathaniel Oubre.

Oubre says claims of a quality of care issue are not true. The healthcare workers got added support with a sympathy strike from the 17,000 members of the California Nurses Association and the stationary engineers, but Kaiser said 66 percent of its nurses crossed the picket line. They brought in traveling nurses to keep the facilities fully staffed.

"I can't complain," Chris Steigerwald said. "The care compares to the way since it's been since he's been there." Steigerwald's husband has been in the hospital for a month. She says there were replacement nurses Tuesday. "I have not seen them before. I've seen just about everybody at one time another since it started. So, there's traveling nurses. They are attentive to him and they've come in and checked on him."

It is about money, who gets what and where it goes.

"This is a company that earned $5.6 billion in 2009," Papizian said.

And, Kaiser says the last one-day strike in September cost it $14 million. UCSF labor economist Prof. Joanne Spetz says that what is happening reflects the economy. "When the economy is good, it's relatively easy for a union to get good wage packages and good benefit packages. Now, is when there's a lot of financial pressure for them to try to reduce the financial packages," she told ABC7.

Because the economy is weak, there will be no lockout. The workers will go back to work Wednesday, but there will be a bargaining session in February.

Kaiser says it was a bit surprised by the sympathy strike because the nurses have a no-strike clause in their contract. They are going to take them to court to make sure it does not happen again.