Kaiser Employees Returning to Jobs in N. California
Kaiser Permanente employees on strike for more than seven weeks began trickling back to their jobs Sunday at the health plan’s 27 medical facilities in Northern California.
Pressed by increasing economic hardship, defections by up to a third of the union membership who crossed picket lines, and a strong recommendation from union leaders to approve the offer, the hospital workers voted by a nearly 3-1 margin Saturday to ratify a new, three-year contract. The contract includes a geographically based, two-tier wage plan that had been at the heart of the bitter labor dispute.
The two-tier plan in the contract the workers accepted has a narrower wage differential than an earlier offer that negotiators for Service Employees International Union, Local 250, had sent to the rank and file for a vote Dec. 4. That offer, which the negotiators submitted for a vote without a recommendation, was rejected by 55% to 45%.
Idled 9,400 Workers
The strike had idled 9,400 workers at Kaiser facilities serving more than 2 million subscribers, about one in four Californians living in the northern half of the state. The strike did not affect Kaiser facilities in Southern California, but both sides expect similar issues will be raised when bargaining on a new contract in the region gets under way next month.
Under the contract terms, all employees are to return to their Kaiser jobs by the end of the week. “Virtually everyone will be back by Tuesday or Wednesday,” Kaiser spokesman Dan Scannell said. “There may be a few returning Sunday, but we expect the first large group Monday morning.”
As the strike entered its eighth week, and Kaiser refused to budge on the two-tier wage issue, top officers of the Service Employees International Union in Washington, of which Local 250 is an affiliate, flew out to join the bargaining sessions for the first time.
At a stormy meeting Saturday night before San Francisco members voted, there was harsh criticism of the D.C. officials who helped draft the new contract.
“There was a strong sense that the International came in from D.C. to strike an accord to keep the union intact,” said one union member who asked not to be identified. “I think if the International had said they’d support us on strike, people here would have continued.”
But a Local 250 negotiator, Robbie Hansford, a respiratory care practitioner at Kaiser’s Vallejo facility, denied that the International officers swayed the bargaining committee to recommend the new contract. “At this point there was such economic hardship (on the picket lines), that people were going to return to work without a contract,” she said, “and that’s exactly what was happening.”
Indeed, although both sides dispute the exact total, up to 2,700 of the more than 9,000 striking workers were estimated to have returned to their jobs by last week. The union had also exhausted its strike benefits fund of more than $1 million. The final checks, for $45, were mailed Dec. 5.
“People were hard up and feeling the crunch,” said Jim Hohman, a respiratory therapist for 11 years at Kaiser’s San Francisco facility who stayed on the picket line throughout the strike and moonlighted as a carpenter.
Returning workers who struck, however, won’t be seeing a paycheck for another three weeks, when the next full pay period closes, Kaiser officials said Sunday.
Under the ratified contract, newly hired employees at Kaiser facilities in Santa Rosa, Vallejo, Napa, Fairfield, Roseville, Stockton and the Sacramento area will start at wages 15% lower than those newly hired in Kaiser’s San Francisco Bay Area facilities. Pharmacists, however, are exempted from the two-tier plan. Kaiser’s original offer, overwhelmingly rejected when workers first walked out on Oct. 27, called for a 30% differential outside the Bay Area.
Current employees will also receive bonuses of $1,000 in the first year (to be paid this Christmas Eve), $850 in the second year and a 3% raise in the third year. New employees will receive $850 bonuses in the second year and a 3% raise in the third year.
The union had sought 5% raises each year. Kaiser had offered a three-year wage freeze with yearly bonuses of $600, $700 and $800 each year for current employees only.
The new contract also creates two lower entry-level wage steps for all new Kaiser employees.
Current wage levels for the workers who had been on strike range from $9.14 an hour for housekeepers to $20.13 an hour for pharmacists.
Throughout the strike, Kaiser maintained it needed the two-tier system because it is losing market share to competing medical plans outside the Bay Area that have lower labor costs. Union officials said Kaiser’s claims about pay disparities were exaggerated, and argued that patient care would suffer if Kaiser tried to cut wages.