Photo by Liam Edwards

On Wednesday, October 6th, 2021, over 75,000 unionized employees of Kaiser Permanente, one of the largest not-for-profit health providers in the United States, went on strike. This marks the largest healthcare worker strike in US history. The striking employees are represented by a coalition of unions that comprise 40% of Kaiser Permanente's total staff, and they work across California, Colorado, Washington, Virginia, Oregon, and Washington, DC. The vast majority of the striking workers are in West Coast states. The strike began at 6 am local time and will run through Saturday morning.

The coalition of unions is demanding higher pay, protections against outsourcing, and earlier notice when management calls remote workers back to in-person work. They are also demanding improved staffing levels, arguing that current staff shortages are compromising patient care and taking many workers to a breaking point. The strike comes at a time of heightened labor activity across the United States, with tens of thousands of workers across multiple industries taking to the picket lines for better pay and benefits. In the wake of the pandemic, healthcare workers, in particular, have been fighting for safer and more secure work environments.

Bargaining sessions between the coalition and Kaiser Permanente ended on Wednesday without a settlement, but "a number of tentative agreements in bargaining" have been reached, Kaiser Permanente said in a statement. "While we have not reached a contract settlement, we have been able to reach a number of tentative agreements in bargaining, and our offers to date address the unions' priorities," the statement says. Kaiser Permanente says it will work with union leaders "to reconvene bargaining as soon as possible."

Caroline Lucas, a spokesperson for the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions, said in a statement Wednesday night: "Frontline healthcare workers are awaiting a meaningful response from Kaiser executives regarding some of our key priorities including safe staffing, outsourcing protections for incumbent healthcare workers, and fair wages to reduce turnover. Healthcare workers within the coalition remain ready to meet at any time. Currently, the strike continues, and there are no sessions scheduled at this hour."

Picket lines in Virginia and Washington DC facilities, most of which are not open 24 hours, went at 7 am ET. In a statement from Kaiser at 9 pm PT Tuesday, it said "Our team is available 24/7 to continue bargaining with the coalition until we reach a fair and equitable agreement. We remain optimistic that there is still time to find agreement before any of the work stoppages called by the coalition unions begin at 6 am on Wednesday." But as 6 am arrived on the West Coast, there was no word of a deal, and employees headed for the picket lines.

The strike is temporary. Kaiser Permanente workers will return to work on October 7th at 6 am local time in each state that joins the strike. However, a "longer, stronger" strike may come in November if a deal between the coalition and Kaiser Permanente is not reached after this strike effort, according to communications from SEIU-UHW, the largest union in the coalition.

Kaiser Permanente has offered location-dependent wage increases, with a maximum of 4% for each of the four years of the new contract, according to an October 1 update by SEIU-UHW. The coalition rejected that offer, saying such a raise proposal fails to keep up with the cost of living. The coalition is asking for an across-the-board 6.5% raise in the first two years of the labor contract and a 5.75% raise in the next two years.

"Workers are really being squeezed right now," Renee Saldana, a spokesperson for SEIU-UHW, told CNN. "They went through the worst global health crisis in a generation, and then they come out, and they're worried about paying rent, they're worried about losing their house, they're worried about living in their cars."

In a recent statement, Kaiser Permanente said it has agreed to accelerate hiring, setting a goal of hiring 10,000 new people for union-represented jobs by the end of 2023. Kaiser Permanente management and union representatives agreed on some of the union's demands. For example, Kaiser Permanente agreed to renew outsourcing and subcontracting protections for many workers and decided on 60-day notice before remote staff are required to return to in-person work, according to SEIU-UHW.

The strike by Kaiser Permanente employees highlights the ongoing struggle for better working conditions and fair wages for healthcare workers in the United States. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light the importance of healthcare workers and the need for adequate staffing levels to ensure patient care. The coalition of unions representing Kaiser Permanente employees is standing up for their rights and demanding that their voices be heard. As the strike continues, it remains to be seen whether a resolution can be reached that satisfies both the workers and management.