Kaiser Permanente Labor Partnership Fractures After 20 Years

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By Jaclyn Diaz

More than half of the labor organizations that make up the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions will leave the 20-year-old partnership with the health-care provider to create a new, yet-to-be named alliance, the group announced March 27.

Infighting among the coalition’s original 34 unions made continuing with the alliance impossible, leaders of two of the 21 departing unions said. This disrupts a partnership with Kaiser Permananente and its various employee unions that began in the 1990s out of a need to address the company’s workforce and financial situation, labor insiders said.

This split comes during prime bargaining time as a national contract covering tens of thousands of Kaiser workers across the U.S. expires in the fall, according to Bloomberg Law’s collective bargaining data.

“How that plays out is going to be absolutely worth watching because it has implications well beyond Kaiser Permanente,” Harley Shaiken, an economics professor at the University of California Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education, said. “Health care is almost a fifth of the U.S economy. This is a sector critical for unions. What happens here impacts quite a number of people.”

The Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions bargained with Kaiser directly on local contracts as well as a national agreement covering all unionized workers.

Kaiser Permanente said through a spokesman that the company is considering what “this development means, and will engage with the various unions’ leadership over the next several days to ensure we understand the implications of this announcement.” No bargaining kick-off meetings will occur this week because of the development, he said.

The spokeswoman for the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions couldn’t immediately comment.

What Went Wrong?

The unions sought a break, in part, because of Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West President Dave Regan, Adrienne Enghouse told Bloomberg Law. Enghouse is president of the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Healthcare Professionals.

Regan proposed a change in the coalition’s electoral process that would effectively give his union a stronger voice, giving smaller unions less say in how bargaining is handled and other issues, Enghouse and another local leader said.

There was also “fundamental disagreement” in how the unions should work together and how a contract was to be reached with Kaiser, Denise Duncan, president of United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals, said. Another proposal was on the table to defund the coalition, which the departing unions strongly disagreed with.

Regan told Bloomberg Law that the issue comes down to numbers.

“We’re committed to having a coalition where basic notions of majority rules apply,” he said. “We’re not going to have a group where” one-third of the group objects to the desires of two-thirds of the group.

SEIU-UHW and the remaining members of the original group represent about 85,000 Kaiser employees on the West Coast. Other unions represented include locals of the Office and Professional Employees International Union, the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, and UNITE-HERE.

The alliance that is breaking off consists of more unions but represents fewer workers, approximately 45,000. The 21 unions those workers belong to include the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, United Food and Commercial Workers, United Steelworkers, Teamsters, and International Union of Operating Engineers.

“Frankly they are much smaller. They will have their work cut out for them,” Regan said. “I think what they’re going to discover is that they made a mistake. They will regret what they’ve done.”

Enghouse’s response to that assertion: “There’s no point of being part of a coalition if you don’t have a relative voice.” That issue came up at a March 19 coalition meeting, after which the unions decided to leave, she said.

What Happens Next

The new alliance will bargain a separate national agreement covering its members across hundreds of job classifications in the health-care sector nationwide. Union leaders said they are confident Kaiser will work with them going forward.

“We have extended an invitation with Kaiser. I’m confident that Kaiser will do the right thing and will come to the table and bargain with us,” Enghouse said.

But all unions could be at a disadvantage going into negotiations with a fractured front, Shaiken with UC Berkeley, and Adrienne Eaton, interim dean of the Rutgers University School of Management and Labor Relations, said.

“Anytime the labor side fragments, that creates an opportunity for management,” Eaton said.

The economic context of the health-care industry is also critical to keep in mind when looking at this split, Shaiken said.

“Health care is facing fierce pressure with the Trump administration,” he said. Federal engagement with health care and a willingness to fund it is “becoming scarcer” and that puts management in a tough position, he said. Kaiser will have a lot more on its plate dealing with two separate groups of several unions, he said.

Unions will be closely watching how these negotiations play out, Shaiken said.

The affect of the split will reach beyond collective bargaining. The coalition also employs several people involved in communications and workforce development.

“A lot of people out there are wondering what happens next for them. They won’t have the same financial resources to employ the staff,” Eaton said. “I would think people would have to be laid off.”

Regan said there’s no plan for layoffs. Those employees are part of the old coalition and will remain so. If the new alliance wants a staff like that, they will have to develop that themselves, he said.

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