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57,000 Kaiser Permanente workers in California begin vote on strike this fall

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About 57,000 union workers at Kaiser Permanente facilities in California, including five in the North Bay, are set to start voting Monday on whether they would strike this fall after talks on a new contract with the health care organization stalled.

The California workers, including around 2,500 at facilities in Santa Rosa, Petaluma, San Rafael and Novato, are scheduled to start casting ballots at 11:30 a.m., wrapping on Aug. 12, a union spokesman told the Business Journal. And the rest of the 85,000 members in other states are to start casting votes in the next two weeks, according to Sean Wherley of Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West, one of several unions in the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions.

In a statement Monday, Kaiser called strike vote premature ahead of most contract expirations in October and divisive in labor relations between the organization and all 56 unions with which it negotiates.

The decision to vote for a strike “is counterproductive and simply a bullying tactic designed to pressure us during the contract bargaining process,” wrote Arlene Peasnall, senior vice president for human resources.

Moves toward a multistate strike came in early July after talks on a new contract stalled, reported James F. Peltz of the Los Angeles Times. The workers include most employees who are not doctors, registered nurses or mental health workers. They include licensed vocational nurses; technicians who work in radiology, X-rays, pharmaceuticals and other fields; and employees involved with food services and environmental services such as laundry service and room cleaning.

Kaiser’s mental health workers in California are involved in a separate contract dispute with the company. Members of their union, the National Union of Healthcare Workers, in early July rejected Kaiser’s latest offers. The union also had threatened a strike, but in June it tabled that action as talks continued.

Talks between Kaiser and the coalition broke off in early July, and the group said its prior contract expired Sept. 30.

That’s when Kaiser said it reached new contract agreements with the Alliance of Health Care Unions, formed last year after two-thirds of the unions in the coalition left, according to Peasnall’s statement.

She claims the coalition’s demands would increase company’s wage costs by over $1 billion over the next five years, or an average of 32% above the market level. Coalition workers already are paid 23% above market, Peasnall wrote.

Results of the California vote will be available Aug. 13, Wherley said. If approved, the strike would start in early October and run seven days.

Kaiser is one of the nation’s largest not-for-profit health plans, Peltz reported. It has 12.3 million members and nearly $80 billion in annual revenue.

The CKPU said that it’s seeking to “protect middle-class jobs with wages and benefits that can support families” but that the company “wants to reduce pay increases for frontline hospital workers and undercut their health benefits and job security.”

The union also said that Kaiser’s executive compensation, prices and other financial information need to be more transparent and publicly available.

Trossman said the union wants to restore what had been “a true partnership” with Kaiser, in which both sides worked to “solve problems, figure out innovations and ways to deliver care better.” That partnership “has been breaking down in recent years,” he said.

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