Kaiser Permanente workers in Southern California and across the state voted overwhelmingly to authorize their union to call a strike if a labor contract cannot be reached, but Kaiser officials accused the union of tainting the vote by using "misleading" ballot language.
According to the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West union, 98% of its California members who cast ballots voted in support of a strike, roughly 37,000 people. Union officials said roughly two-thirds of Kaiser workers represented by the union voted.
Strike-authorization votes are expected to continue through mid-September by members of the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions, which includes labor unions in California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Hawaii, Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia. SEIU officials contend that if a strike occurs, it will be the largest in the nation since the 1997 Teamsters strike against United Parcel Service.
The Coalition overall represents about 80,000 workers.
"Kaiser workers all over California are putting a stake in the ground that it's time for this corporation to get back on track and live up to its mission to help patients, workers and communities thrive," Heather Wright, a Kaiser women's health clerk in Santa Clara, said in a statement released by the union.
John Nelson, vice president of communications for Kaiser, blasted the union for holding the vote as a bargaining tactic "designed to divide employees and mischaracterize Kaiser Permanente's position, even though most of the contracts don't expire until October." He said the voting results reflect "obviously misleading ballot questions" used by the union.
According to Nelson, the ballot language asked union members to vote yes "to protest Kaiser's illegal behavior and unfair labor practices," or vote no to "accept a contract that increases our medical costs, cuts our pensions and retiree medical benefits, offers low pay scales and raises that are less for Oregon and Washington than California."
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"To be clear, Kaiser Permanente has presented a contract proposal that would provide annual pay increases that would keep our employees compensated higher than market averages and maintain excellent benefits," Nelson said. "Contrary to the union's claims, there are no pay cuts and no changes to our employees' defined pension benefit under our proposal."
According to Kaiser, workers represented by the Coalition are already paid 23% above market rates.
"The Coalition's proposal would actually increase our wages on average 32% above the market over the next five years, adding a billion dollars to our labor costs," Nelson said.
The union has repeatedly accused Kaiser of bad-faith bargaining. It also accused Kaiser of "actively destroying good jobs by outsourcing them to companies that pay low wages with few benefits."
Union officials said they are pushing for a contract that would ensure "safe staffing," protect middle-class jobs "with wages and benefits that can support families" and "build the workforce of the future to deal with major projected shortages of licensed and accredited staff in the coming years."
A strike authorization vote does not necessarily mean a walkout will occur. It is often used to increase leverage by a union at the bargaining table.