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While Kaiser Permanente averts some planned strikes in Sonoma County, other scheduled pickets still threatened

Unions representing Kaiser Permanente pharmacists and rehabilitation therapists in Sonoma County have reached tentative labor agreements with the health care giant, averting strikes this week.

But several unions representing a large segment of Kaiser employees are still planning to walk off the job this week, many of them in support of Local 39 stationary engineers who have been striking for two months.

Early Monday, Kaiser reached a tentative agreement with the Guild for Professional Pharmacists for a new 3-year contract for pharmacists in Northern California.

“The tentative agreement reflects our respect for Kaiser Permanente pharmacy professionals and the exceptional care they provide and provides industry-leading wage and benefit packages,” Kaiser said in a statement.

On Saturday, Kaiser and the Alliance of Health Care Unions called off an open-ended strike after reaching a tentative agreement on a four-year contract, covering nearly 50,000 employees in 22 local unions across California and several other states.

In Northern California, the strike would have affected 1,350 physical and occupational, as well as speech language pathologists. Elsewhere, the strike threatened by the labor alliance would have included nurses, pharmacists, midwifes and other health care workers.

Hal Ruddick, executive director of the Alliance of Health Care Unions, said in a statement that the tentative contract “protects our patients, provides safe staffing, and guarantees fair wages and benefits for every Alliance member.”

Rehabilitation therapists said one of the primary labor issues was excessive scheduling of new patients that threatened timely treatment for returning patients. Those issues will now be addressed in current negotiations, said Brian Nitta, a Kaiser physical therapist who is part of the union’s bargaining team.

“We have an agreement in place that still needs to be ratified by our members,” Nitta said. “But we’re happy with the process that’s been set-up to address these issues.”

But not all of Kaiser’s labor issues have been resolved. A large swath of health care workers represented by several large unions, including the California Nurses Association, the National Union of Healthcare Workers and the Service Employees International Union, are still planning a 1-day strike later this week, in support of striking stationary engineers.

On Sunday, SEIU’s Union of Healthcare Workers voted to go forward with their strike on Nov. 18, said union representative Renée Saldaña. “We’re still on for Thursday, 7 a.m.,” she said. “If they’re on the line we’ll be with them, if they call it off we’ll call it off, too.”

Kaiser on Monday said it is still trying to resolve differences with Local 39 and hopes to avoid “sympathy” strikes later this week. Local 39 representatives said that’s news to them, and they haven’t had haven’t had formal negotiations since Oct. 22.

Shane Mortensen, a district representative for Local 39 and the chief negotiator for the Kaiser contract, said Kaiser’s wage proposals would put Sonoma County engineers below other engineers in the region, not taking into account that the cost of living in the North Bay is also extremely high. He said Kaiser officials have been trying to shame the union, claiming that stationary engineers are among Kaiser’s highest paid employees.

In a statement late Monday, Kaiser said that for years, Local 39 — as the only engineers’ union in the region — has “demanded richer and richer contracts from employers, and in turn used these to demand that other employers top them.” Kaiser said it is committed to competitive wages and generous retirement benefits for all it’s employees.

Matt Skryja, a Kaiser spokesman, said late Monday that Kaiser plans to meet with Local 39 representatives Tuesday morning.

Mortensen said Local 39 is grateful for the support it is receiving from other unions. “It’s not one person, it’s all unions fighting together,” he said.

The NUHW, which represents 107 mental health therapists in Sonoma County, is still planning a 1-day strike on Nov. 19.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

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