At 6 a.m. Wednesday, nearly 800 healthcare workers and supporters formed a picket line outside Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center, marking the beginning of a nationwide strike for increased wages and staffing at Kaiser Permanente facilities across the country.
Projected to last for three days, it has already been deemed “the largest healthcare strike in American history,” according to a statement from the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions, or CKPU.
In the statement, CKPU notes that Kaiser authorities received a 10-day notice of the strike after CKPU spent six months bargaining with Kaiser to replace a pre-pandemic contract that expired last month.
Kaiser medical social worker Jeannifer Key was on the Oakland picket line Thursday, noting the agreement failure between CKPU and Kaiser — something Key claims didn’t happen in the past.
“In the past, we used to work collaboratively — what are management’s issues, what are laborers’ interests, and what do we have in common — and we’ve worked together,” Key said. “It’s not like that at all now. It’s like us versus them.”
Kaiser Permanente listed its current bargaining offers in a statement on the strike, which included wage increases, an update to payout opportunities, enhanced health benefits and retirement plans and increased funding for education trusts and training programs.
The statement also noted Kaiser’s success in hiring 10,000 new staffers into roles the coalition considers important three months prior to the goal date set by Kaiser and CKPU when bargaining began.
“Kaiser Permanente, our industry, and our employees are now operating in a new cultural, labor, and post-pandemic environment that we are all working hard to understand. We are committed to finding workable solutions for this new environment to balance taking care of our employees and being affordable to our members,” the Kaiser Permanente statement reads.
Individuals at the Oakland picket line Thursday ranged from those working directly within the hospital as medical assistants and health educators to members of radiology and respiratory clinics and pharmacists. Unions present at the Oakland center on the second day of the strike included Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West, or SEIU-UHW, the Engineers and Scientists of California Local 20 and Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 29.
Posters reading “Respect Healthcare Workers” and “Our Patients Need More Staff” were raised as members on the picket line marched outside the Oakland center, supported by honks from passing cars.
Fay Eastman, an Oakland Common Issues Committee alternate with the SEIU-UHW bargaining team at the picket line and a Kaiser patient care tech, or PCT, noticed dramatic changes in her department. Over the past five years, the regularly four PCTs assigned to 20 or 24 patients on her floor dwindled to just one — Eastman herself.
“That just makes you feel devastated, especially when you really care about your patients,” Eastman said. “We’re asking for more healthcare workers so that we can actually just do our job safely.”
Others at the Oakland picket line, including Kaiser medical assistants Priscilla Solorzano, Elizabeth Gutierrez and Cecilia Lugo, all agreed that there was a general lack of staffing and unfair compensation, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We keep getting broken promises,” Gutierrez said.
Laurel Lucia, director of the Health Care program at UC Berkeley Labor Center, spoke on possible legislative action — namely, the SB 525 bill.
If signed into law, SB 525 will increase large healthcare employers’ — such as Kaiser’s — minimum wage to $23 per hour June 1st, 2024 with dollar increases per year until June 2026.
She noted the increased wages will not only benefit healthcare workers, but patients as well.
“What’s good for healthcare workers is good patients,” Lucia said.
While the strike’s impact varies by location, Kaiser stated on its website that all hospitals and emergency departments would stay open, staffed by physicians and additional support staff. Although some nonemergency and elective services may be rescheduled, Kaiser members and patients will be informed of any necessary service changes.
The strike is set to end at 6:00 a.m. Saturday Oct. 7, but the coalition may decide to release another 10-day notice — which could lead to further striking — if Kaiser continues to “bargain in bad faith,” according to an updated statement from the CKPU.
As of press time, Kaiser and the coalition have scheduled further bargaining sessions for Oct. 12 and Oct. 13.
Key, among others, voiced her desires from Kaiser amid negotiations.
“(We want) for them to bargain in sincerity, for them to really have productive conversations and not just glaze over stuff, for them to recognize their staffing shortage and how it affects patient care,” Key said. “Help us to take care of our patients.”