A swath of Kaiser Permanente workers in California has voted overwhelmingly to approve a strike that could draw in more than 80,000 employees of the healthcare giant across the nation, according to the coalition of unions representing them.
The employees -- who include most staff aside from doctors, mental health workers or certain nurses -- have been working under an expired national contract since September, though their local contracts are still current.
The Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West -- which is the largest union in a coalition covered by the national contract -- voted in support of the strike, according to the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions. Two-thirds of the union's members voted, and 98% of those voted yes, it said.
The vote does not mean a strike will take place; rather, it gives union leaders the ability to call one whenever they want, which provides extra leverage in negotiations. Leaders have floated early October as a possible time for a strike.
Workers in other unions represented by the coalition, including those in five other states and Washington, D.C., as well as four in California, are scheduled to vote in the coming weeks.
The coalition says the nonprofit healthcare giant's focus on high margins in recent years has led to unfair labor practices and refusals to bargain in good faith. "Workers are rejecting what Kaiser has become," said Sean Wherley, a spokesperson for the coalition. "It has moved away from its commitments to patients and staffing and is instead emphasizing huge profits and executive salaries."
Kaiser pushed back against that idea. "Our first priority is always continuity of care for our patients and members," and Kaiser is offering wages and benefits that exceed market rates, John Nelson, the company's vice president of communications, said in an emailed statement.
Oakland-based Kaiser is one of the nation's largest not-for-profit health plans; it has 12.3 million members, including 4.6 million in Southern California. The health maintenance organization, or HMO, generated nearly $80 billion of revenue and $2.5 billion of net income last year, according to its annual report.
An analysis by the coalition found that Kaiser chief executive's annual salary had increased from $6 million in 2015 to $16 million in 2017. It also found that Kaiser had 36 executives making over $1 million a year, while the Blue Cross Blue Shield Assn. and the St. Jude Children's Research Hospital each has only three executives compensated at that level. A Kaiser representative did not dispute those figures but said that the organization pays what it must in order to attract and retain the leaders it needs and that Kaiser's size and complexity make it not comparable to other healthcare nonprofits.
Nelson called the strike authorization a divisive bargaining tactic "designed to divide employees and mischaracterize Kaiser Permanente's position."