Kaiser health care strike: Driven by and likely to boost a labor-action surge

The strike including 23,000 workers in the Bay Area.|

A massive strike by Kaiser Permanente workers, including 23,000 in the Bay Area, is part of a surge in union activity this year from Detroit to Hollywood and likely will bring greater bargaining power to workers in health care and other industries, experts say.

Kaiser’s strike followed the Sept. 30 expiration of the union contract for tens of thousands of workers. Other high-profile strikes, including a successful labor action by Hollywood writers and an ongoing strike among auto workers — and even a threatened strike by UPS employees that was a key tactic in negotiating a favorable contract — likely gave confidence to Kaiser workers, said John Logan, chair of the Labor and Employment Studies department at San Francisco State University.

“When they see things like that, they think, yes, now is the time to do this. We can do it, too,” Logan said.

The job action over wages, understaffing and other issues that took 75,000 Kaiser workers across the U.S. off the job starting Wednesday morning is set to last at least through Friday in California.

On Thursday morning, the union coalition said talks had stalled, with no negotiations scheduled. Kaiser said talks had continued through the night and that it had increased its wage offers to 5% for three years and 4% in the fourth year. According to the unions, Kaiser had been offering Northern California workers 4% for two years then 3% for two years, as of Sept. 30. On Thursday afternoon, Kaiser said it was working with the union coalition to renew bargaining.

“The health and wellbeing of our members and patients is our top priority,” Kaiser said Thursday.

The Kaiser strike follows others among the company’s workers, noted Robert Ovetz, a lecturer at San Jose State University who studies labor-movement politics. Last year, mental health professionals walked out amid demands that the health care provider increase staffing. In 2021, facilities were affected as health care workers participated in a sympathy strike as engineers engaged in a dispute lasting months.

“There’s a pattern of complaints that we’re hearing from these workers now that are on strike, and that is that (Kaiser is) short staffing, and they are putting the workers’ safety at risk, they are putting patients’ safety at risk, and they have long wait times,” Ovetz said.

Those grievances resonate with workers in other industries who see their employers making gains that are not shared with employees or used to improve working conditions, Ovetz said. “That translates into more intense work, burnout, injury on the job, stagnant pay, declining quality of benefits,” Ovetz said. “These are consistent issues across these many strikes that we’re seeing emerging over the last couple of years.”

Kaiser said it has hired more than 50,000 workers nationally in the last two years, including 10,000 into jobs represented by the unions striking.

That the Kaiser strike involves mostly support workers — Kaiser has kept hospitals open and urgent care available with doctors, nurses and newly contracted fill-in staff who are not part of the striking unions — suggests Kaiser’s other recent strikes are having broad effects on the Kaiser’s workforce and probably elsewhere in health care, Ovetz said.

“Now we’re starting to see lower-paid workers with different skills sets (striking),” Ovetz said. “We are in the beginning or the middle of what I think is a strike wave.”

Kaiser Permanent workers picket Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023, in Baldwin Park, Calif. Some 75,000 Kaiser Permanente hospital employees who say understaffing is hurting patient care walked off the job in five states and the District of Columbia, kicking off a major health care worker strike.(AP Photo/Ryan Sun)
Kaiser Permanent workers picket Thursday, Oct. 5, 2023, in Baldwin Park, Calif. Some 75,000 Kaiser Permanente hospital employees who say understaffing is hurting patient care walked off the job in five states and the District of Columbia, kicking off a major health care worker strike.(AP Photo/Ryan Sun)

Ken Jacobs, chair of the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education, suggested the labor-action surge goes back even further, pointed to huge teachers’ strikes in the southern U.S. in 2018 as its start. A subsequent strike that year by thousands of Marriott hotel workers added impetus to the movement, Jacobs said.

Then came the COVID pandemic, sowing chaos in health care and putting workers like those at Kaiser under extreme pressure, according to Jacobs. Amid the virus outbreak, many workers left health care jobs, leading to staffing challenges at Kaiser that have also put stress on workers and affected patient wait times, he said. And with inflation, Kaiser workers have seen “significant erosion in the real value of their wages in the last two years,” Jacobs said.

Public sympathy for workers struggling with rising prices and housing costs like millions of other Americans is one of several advantages held by Kaiser’s striking workers, experts said. Jacobs believes that people understand that understaffing in health care could affect their own health.

Complicating the strike for Kaiser is a tight labor market that makes it hard to replace workers who might leave over pay and conditions, Logan said. Disruption from the strike itself blemishes Kaiser’s reputation, and the bright media spotlight on labor disputes in recent months also helps the workers, he said, especially with support in the U.S. for unions the highest it has been since the mid-1960s.

And with 75,000 Kaiser workers striking across the country, the labor action, like the auto workers’ and Hollywood strikes, is a dispute of national importance, Logan said.

“If Kaiser’s unions get a really good settlement out of this, it’ll certainly embolden other health care workers and other unions more broadly as well,” Logan said.

Union membership has been declining since the early 1980s, leading to “a huge divorce between productivity increases and pay” and increasing income and wealth inequality, Jacobs said. Successful labor actions, he believes, could help address those inequalities.

“The evidence is extremely strong that when more workers are in unions and unions have greater power, that brings up the floor for the vast majority — for those who have not been seeing the gains of the last 40 years,” he said, “and has an important effect on both reducing income inequality but also reducing inequality in race and gender.”

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:
  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.