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Bernie Sanders

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) speaks to the media outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington, D.C. on July 12, 2021, after attending a meeting with President Joe Biden. (Photo: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

Sanders Leads Senators in Backing Kaiser Permanente Workers Before Planned Strike

"The company wishes to diminish the safety, security, and well-being of its workers, rather than improve them. That's just not right. Your employees deserve better."

Jessica Corbett

Sen. Bernie Sanders, joined by seven Democratic colleagues, sent a letter Friday to Kaiser Permanente chair and CEO Greg Adams in support of tens of thousands of healthcare workers planning to strike on November 15 unless negotiations for a fair contract improve.

"These employees are heroes and heroines and should be treated as such."

Monday's strike is set to include 32,000 Kaiser workers, though another 8,000 have authorized a strike, the letter notes. They are represented by various unions and work at facilities across California, Colorado, D.C., Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Oregon, Virginia, and Washington.

Along with Sanders (I-Vt.), the letter is signed by Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.), Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). It follows a wave of "Striketober" labor actions nationwide last month.

In addition to calling on the Kaiser chief executive to negotiate a fair contract, the senators highlighted the conditions that workers have endured while "working tirelessly in the midst of a life-threatening pandemic" that is ongoing.

"They risked their lives to save patients—showing up to work despite not being provided basic protective equipment. We've been told that some were even forced to sleep in their cars and hotels to protect their families. These employees are heroes and heroines and should be treated as such," the letter says. "Sadly, you have taken another approach."

According to the eight senators:

Instead of treating these workers with the dignity and respect they deserve you have demanded that they accept just a 2% wage increase and a two-tier system that allows you to pay new workers lower wages. Considering your recent profit margins, we find this offer to be demeaning and unacceptable. These dedicated workers deserve a fair wage increase, and the new generation of Kaiser Permanente workers should have the same pay structure as those who are longer-term employees.

To add to these concerns, you have refused to negotiate a fair contract with Kaiser workers who organized unions more than two years ago. Your company has also failed to address unequal wage scales that have a racially discriminatory impact, and you have rejected proposals to work with employees to safeguard patient care by improving staffing.

Noting that the healthcare giant made $2.2 billion in operating profits last year, the letter to Adams says that "now, at a time when Kaiser is sitting on $44.5 billion in cash reserves and your insured membership has grown to 12.5 million, the company wishes to diminish the safety, security, and well-being of its workers, rather than improve them."

"That's just not right. Your employees deserve better," the letter continues. "In this moment, Mr. Adams, you can do the right thing."

According to CBS Los Angeles, Kaiser is warning patients that if the strike happens next week, "its pharmacies would be temporarily closed and some appointments might have to be changed to virtual care, including phone or video visits."

An early November statement from the United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals (UNAC/UHCP) about a 10-day strike notice covering 21,000 nurse practitioners, midwives, pharmacists, physical and occupational therapists, physician assistants, registered nurses, and others accused Kaiser of failing to "address union proposals that would tackle pressing problems such as staffing shortages, racial justice, and equal health access."

UNAC/UHCP president Denise Duncan, RN, said at the time that "the lives of our patients and the health of our communities are dependent on the outcome of these negotiations."

"The lives of our patients and the health of our communities are dependent on the outcome of these negotiations."

"For weeks, we've been beating back a two-tier wage package which would impact our ability to hire, recruit, and retain during a severe shortage of nurses, healthcare workers, and professionals—wage proposals that resemble those of a slash-and-burn corporation, not the leading healthcare provider that our members helped build," Duncan explained.

"For healthcare providers, a strike is always a last resort, but it's clear from the employer's latest proposals that this is the path they've chosen," she said. "Nurses and healthcare professionals have one priority: delivering the best possible care to our patients. Kaiser's actions are destructive to that priority. These next few weeks will define us."

Echoing that sentiment, nurse Kim Mullen of Kaiser South Bay said that "the whole reason I'm going on strike is because of my patients."

"I believe my patients deserve the best care and attracting the best nurses is what's best for them," she continued, "and I need to make sure that we continue to attract the best nurses who want to stay at Kaiser in order for my patients to get the best care."

Alaa Abou-Arab, an occupational therapist at Kaiser LAMC, said: "My son was born at Kaiser. My doctor is at Kaiser. The reality is: we're not just Kaiser staff, we're Kaiser patients."

"This stuff is real for us," Abou-Arab added. "We're relying on the future generation of nurses to take care of us too. We're striking in solidarity with those nurses and for our own families."

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