The labor union representing 24,000 Kaiser Permanente employees is pausing participation in its labor-management partnership with the integrated health system and is prepared to ask its members to vote on a strike, union leaders said Friday.

The United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals, which includes registered nurses, pharmacists, rehab therapists, midwives and optometrists, also said the landmark labor-management partnership created in 1997 is “on life support.”

The union’s collective bargaining agreements with the Oakland-based not-for-profit system expire within weeks. The employer has offered a 1% across-the-board raise for union workers and a two-tiered pay scale that would reduce compensation for new hires compared to current employees starting in 2023, which the union does not support.

Kaiser Permanente could not be reached for comment before this article published.

Union workers say proposals like these, which reduce wages long term even though the company reported $2.2 billion in operating income in 2020, give them no choice but to pause the partnership and potentially call for a strike, the union said in a news release. Labor leaders worry Kaiser Permanente’s proposals will worsen staff shortages as other healthcare providers offer raises, signing bonuses and other incentives to attract workers, especially nurses.

“We risked our lives and our own families’ health to save people,” Peter Sidhu, a registered nurse who has cared for COVID-19 patients. Sidhu is the union’s treasurer and a member of the bargaining committee negotiating with Kaiser Permanente.

“Some of us died from it. Others still suffer long haul symptoms. We were without beds. We had patients in tents. Not enough nurses. The employer should be thanking us. Instead, Kaiser Permanente has chosen to drive down wages and benefits,” Sidhu said.

The most recent bargaining session was Sept. 10 and no future meetings are currently scheduled, said Joe Guzynski, the union’s executive director and chief negotiator.

“We’re focusing on in-depth conversations with our members about these issues and what to do next. With most of our contracts set to expire on Sept. 30, if Kaiser Permanente intends to force these wage cuts, it could lead to nationwide actions, including a strike,” Guzynski said.

The Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals, which also belongs to the Alliance of Health Care Unions, is planning a rally in Portland Sept. 28 to protest staffing levels and proposed contract changes at Kaiser Permanente facilities.

The labor management partnership is a 24-year-old agreement between the health system and its unions—now called the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions and the Alliance of Health Care Unions—to jointly make decisions about patient care, access and quality.

Workers don’t want to strike and fear walking out would be unfair to the travel nurses at Kaiser Permanente sites, who would be heavily understaffed, said, Elizabeth Hawkins, a registered nurse and the union’s secretary.

“This employer has an agenda that’s being orchestrated from the top down, from Kaiser leadership and the board of directors, who I believe no longer believe in the partnership and working with the union,” said Hawkins, who retired from Kaiser Permanente last March after 31 years. “We should be able to sit down and put the partnership principles to work and get to where we need to be.”

The health system likely narrowly avoided a strike by the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions in September 2019 over contract negotiations, after agreeing to higher wages and a workforce development program.

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