Thousands join picket lines at Kaiser Permanente’s California hospitals

OAKLAND, Calif. - Thousands of workers at Kaiser Permanente facilities across California marched on picket lines Jan. 31.

Some 4,000 mental health and optical workers, members of the National Union of Health Workers, called the one-day strike to protest what they say are staffing levels too low to provide timely services and adequate follow-up for patients, as well as demands for takeaways from workers' pensions and health care. The NUHW has been in contract negotiations with Kaiser since 2010.

Registered nurses, members of the California Nurses Association, and technical workers who belong to Operating Engineers Local 39, joined them in a sympathy strike, and some members of other Kaiser unions also joined the picketing.

In a study issued late last year, the union found mental health workers reporting that their patients often have first appointments that are group orientation sessions rather than real evaluations. They then often wait four weeks or more for return appointments, even though state law says patients shouldn't have to wait more than 10 days.

On the Oakland picket line, Kathy Donohue, a CNA member and a registered nurse at Kaiser for 15 years, said the lack of mental health staffing and the resulting inability to schedule and follow up on cases promptly, "is bringing about heartbreaking stories." One of her colleagues has a son who has struggled with substance abuse, she said, and when he couldn't be seen promptly, he ended up on a ventilator.

Mental health and optical workers also face takeaway attempts in the drawn-out contract talks.

Pointing to "record profits" that the union says total $5.6 billion in the last three years, Mary Anne Beach, a Ph.D. psychologist and NUHW shop steward at Kaiser's Antioch facility, said Kaiser "is really capitalizing on the economy." Despite the profits, she said, Kaiser is trying to replace workers' pensions with a 5 percent contribution to a 401k, wants workers to pay more for health care, and seeks to cut retiree health coverage.

Speaking by phone from the picket line in Antioch, she added, "We want to send a message that the cuts are not acceptable. Kaiser is in a very profitable position and they shouldn't be taking advantage."

Asked why members of his union were on the line in Oakland, though they aren't now in contract talks, Engineers Local 39 member Noah Chapman said Kaiser had "tried the same kinds of takeaways with us. We need to stand together so Kaiser will realize we are all serious."

A few blocks away, a smaller group of pickets stood in front of another Kaiser building. Among them were two women, members of the Service Employees International Union, which did not join the sympathy strike.

One, calling attention to the $9 million in compensation Kaiser's CEO George Halvorson took away in 2010, observed, "If even half of that were devoted to patient care, that care could be hugely improved."

Kaiser's medical facilities stayed open during the strike, relying on replacement workers and nurse managers to fill in.

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