Nurses, mental health therapists and other Kaiser Permanente health workers strike to support stationary engineers
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OAKLAND, Calif. – Over 60,000 members of other unions representing Kaiser Permanente workers throughout northern California held solidarity strikes Nov. 17 and 18, in solidarity with members of Stationary Engineers Local 39, who have been walking picket lines since their contract expired in mid-September.

On Thursday, more than 40,000 workers belonging to SEIU-UHW, OPEIU Local 29, and IFPTE Local 20 stayed off the job at 21 Kaiser facilities in northern California. Among them were optometrists, licensed vocational nurses and certified nursing assistants, surgical and pharmacy technicians, housekeepers, and workers in hundreds of other positions.

They were followed on Friday by some 20,000 registered nurses, members of the California Nurses Association, and nearly 2,000 mental health clinicians represented by the National Union of Healthcare Workers.

The mental health clinicians have themselves been working without a contract since Oct. 1 and have been engaged in a long struggle with Kaiser over the healthcare giant’s rejection of proposals to increase staffing and reduce the very long times their patients must currently wait for care. Now, many Kaiser patients must wait one to three months between therapy appointments.

In Oakland, mental health workers and their community supporters, including several area elected officials, gathered for a noontime rally in front of Kaiser’s corporate headquarters, after marching from the Oakland Kaiser hospital complex.

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Kaiser stationary engineer Mark Sutherland told the crowd, “We just want to be met at the bargaining table in good faith. Sixty-three days is too long. For us, the Local 39 engineers, and for the National Union of Healthcare Workers, who are now out of a contract, do the right thing!”

Likening the healthcare industry to a puzzle, and “everyone within labor … a piece of that puzzle,” he said, “Without us, without a puzzle piece there, or a piece missing, we cannot give the care that Kaiser talks about, that perfect care.”

Kaiser claims that its engineers are the most highly paid in the area, Sutherland said, but in fact, Local 39 members are the lowest-paid engineers in the healthcare industry.

Expressing great appreciation for the solidarity fellow Kaiser workers have given the engineers during the more than two months they have been picketing Kaiser, Sutherland declared, “Let’s put all the puzzle pieces together – let’s get back to the bargaining table, and let’s give the healthcare Kaiser talks about.”

Leading the crowd in chanting, “Oakland is a Union Town,” Alameda Labor Council Executive Secretary-Treasurer Liz Ortega declared, “It’s a damn shame these workers have been out here for 63 days and counting! The 135,000 workers the Labor Council represents “are here to say, ‘We have your back! We will not stand for Kaiser’s corporate greed.’”

Oakland City Councilmember Carroll Fife called on all participants to also protect the mental health workers, “frontline essential workers … Living in this day will create even for the healthiest people, dis-ease,” she said, “and we need to have a process and structures in place to address that.” Fife expressed “deepest gratitude and support” for all “who continue to stand up and fight the lion – when we connect and link up, we will win!”

Mental health therapist Ilana Marcucci-Morris, who conducts initial assessments, described the ways Kaiser presses therapists to accept giving patients not at immediate risk long wait times for return visits. Paradoxically, she said, the most severe patients typically face the longest waits for appointments: “Unless they’re deemed an immediate threat to themselves or others, they will have to wait months for an appointment with a treating therapist.”

Though Kaiser claims there’s a shortage, she said, “there’s a solid supply of qualified therapists. They just don’t want to work for a system that is so strained.”

Saying his family “is a Kaiser family,” Contra Costa County Supervisor John Gioia expressed “deep appreciation and gratitude” to the mental health clinicians and other Kaiser workers “for everything you’ve done for some of my family members and for our community.

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“This is about how large corporations treat their workers, treat their patients, treat our community,” he said. “This is about all of us standing together with you so that you get a fair contract. But that fair contract goes deeper, it’s about respect, it’s about the patients.”

NUHW says that although talks on a new contract began in July, and the existing contract expired Oct. 1, Kaiser has yet to make a proposal on wages and benefits for the nearly 2,000 mental health workers in northern California,  and has rejected the union’s proposals to increase staffing, recruit more therapists who are bilingual and people of color, and ease unsustainable caseloads that are causing increased turnover.

The union also points out that Kaiser’s refusal to consider increased staffing comes just months before it will be required to comply with California’s recently-enacted Senate Bill 221, Health Care Coverage: Timely Access to Care. The new law, which takes effect July 1, 2022, will require health insurers to provide follow-up mental health therapy appointments within 10 business days unless the clinician determines a longer wait will not be detrimental.


CONTRIBUTOR

Marilyn Bechtel
Marilyn Bechtel

Marilyn Bechtel writes for People’s World from the San Francisco Bay Area. She joined the PW staff in 1986, and currently participates as a volunteer.

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