Hawaiian Health Care Workers Push Back Against Health Care Giant Kaiser Permanente

Steve Early

Kaiser health care workers have stood up to the health care giant over issues ranging from proper staffing to pensions.

Mary Ann Barnes, the new­ly arrived pres­i­dent of health care giant Kaiser Per­ma­nente in Hawaii, recent­ly informed hos­pi­tal work­ers that the world fig­ure she most admires is the late Moth­er Tere­sa — because of her human­i­ty and selflessness.”

Pic­tured wear­ing a lei around her neck, Barnes explained in the com­pa­ny newslet­ter that her top man­age­ment pri­or­i­ty is to make sure that the work envi­ron­ment is as good as it can be … so that every­one can love what they do.”

For spread­ing such good island vibes, Barnes earns near­ly $1 mil­lion a year. Like oth­er top Kaiser exec­u­tives on the main­land, she’s eli­gi­ble for mul­ti­ple pen­sion plans.

On Sep­tem­ber 24, sev­er­al hun­dred mem­bers of Unite Here Local 5, includ­ing those who work at Kaiser clin­ics and hos­pi­tals, tried to meet with Barnes about their pen­sions, arriv­ing on three bus­es from a union con­ven­tion site in down­town Hon­olu­lu and spilling out in the park­ing lot just below Barnes’ window.

Wear­ing red union t‑shirts, the pro­tes­tors began chant­i­ng: I don’t know but I’ve been told, Kaiser’s got a pot of gold. And if they don’t give it up soon, we’ll be march­ing here til June!”

A small­er rank-and-file del­e­ga­tion went inside to ask Barnes why Kaiser is try­ing to cur­tail group pen­sion cov­er­age if it wants to improve the work envi­ron­ment” for 2,000 Local 5 members?

Hav­ing helped gen­er­ate more than $4.8 bil­lion in prof­its for Kaiser in the last 18 months, these Hawai­ian health care work­ers want a new con­tract that doesn’t force new hires into riski­er, cheap­er 401(k) retire­ment accounts. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, Barnes was tied up in a meet­ing else­where — and thus no more respon­sive than oth­er Kaiser offi­cials dur­ing 2 and ½ years of stalled nego­ti­a­tions. Last Jan­u­ary, man­age­ment pre­sent­ed Local 5 nego­tia­tors with a set­tle­ment offer they claimed was Kaiser’s last, best and final.”

Reject­ed by the union, this pack­age includ­ed no retroac­tiv­i­ty and the low­est wage increase that the hos­pi­tal chain has pro­posed for any of its U.S. regions. Man­age­ment wants to deny defined ben­e­fit pen­sions to any new­ly hired ser­vice and tech­ni­cal work­ers. Kaiser also insists that cur­rent employ­ees, who remain eli­gi­ble for exist­ing cov­er­age, should work more hours to qual­i­fy for it. In the months ahead, Kaiser may try to declare a bar­gain­ing impasse” and impose these new con­di­tions unilaterally.

Lit­tle Hawaii” Says No!

At oth­er major employ­ers with sim­i­lar prof­it mar­gins, the employ­er assault on tra­di­tion­al pen­sion cov­er­age has already suc­ceed­ed to vary­ing degrees. At Boe­ing, Ver­i­zon and the Wash­ing­ton Post, pen­sion cov­er­age has gone two-tier or worse.

To fend off this fate, Local 5 has done some very cre­ative mem­ber­ship edu­ca­tion and mobi­liza­tion, wor­thy of emu­la­tion else­where. At Kaiser in Hawaii, Unite Here sets the high­est stan­dard for wages and ben­e­fits in the entire health care indus­try, ben­e­fit­ing both its own mem­bers and fel­low work­ers at oth­er hos­pi­tals. The union’s mul­ti-faceted cam­paign to defend retire­ment secu­ri­ty has also engaged the 8,800 work­ers it rep­re­sents in resort hotels.

Management’s plan is to divide and con­quer, “ Local 5 Orga­niz­er Mar­sha Bruhn says. If Kaiser suc­ceeds in tak­ing away pen­sions from new hires and then takes away the pen­sions of cur­rent employ­ees, what will hap­pen to the pen­sions of our hotel mem­bers in Hawaii?”

Savvy Use of Social Media

Local 5 has pro­duced an excel­lent ani­mat­ed video about what’s wrong with pen­sion plan changes that pit young against old and leave new hires depen­dent on 401(k) cov­er­age rather than a real pen­sion, enti­tled Kaiser Per­ma­nente, We’re Not Lit­tle Hawaii!’”

As Kaiser work­er and Local 5 mem­ber-orga­niz­er Jon­ah Pas­cual explains to his co-work­ers, Our defined ben­e­fit is con­crete. It’s the employer’s respon­si­bil­i­ty to make sure the mon­ey is there and they can’t touch it. But they’re try­ing to switch over to a defined con­tri­bu­tion approach. …With that, they put in the mon­ey, but what­ev­er hap­pens, hap­pens. You nev­er know what’s going to be in the pot when you retire.”

Pen­sion Math Lessons

Local 5 cal­cu­lates that future mem­bers who work for Kaiser will lose at least $1,200/month when they retire at age 65 if Kaiser gets the give­backs it wants. What’s Your Num­ber?” became the ques­tion of the day, as union activists helped their co-work­ers do the indi­vid­ual pen­sion cal­cu­la­tions nec­es­sary to under­stand how plan changes would adverse­ly affect new hires or them, now or in the future.

Local 5 stew­ards have orga­nized a series of col­or­ful work­place actions. Orga­niz­ing around the theme, Don’t Blow Your Pen­sions,” Kaiser work­ers spent a day blow­ing soap bub­bles at work. To urge co-work­ers: Don’t be a suck­er: Fight for your pen­sion!” they hand­ed out union-label lollipops.

This edu­ca­tion­al work paid off in June when near­ly 130 rank-and-file mem­bers, joined by their high school-age chil­dren, packed an open bar­gain­ing ses­sion with Kaiser. The observers car­ried Don’t Touch Our Pen­sions!” signs and applaud­ed wild­ly at co-work­ers’ per­son­al tes­ti­mo­ny about their pen­sion needs.

Legislative/​Political Action

Kaiser work­ers also took their key con­tract cam­paign issue to the state con­ven­tion of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty last May. There, hun­dreds of del­e­gates and elect­ed offi­cials were enlist­ed as supporters.

Local 5 also ran one of its own, Joli Tukusato, to run for a seat on the Hon­olu­lu City Coun­cil. While she was not elect­ed this time around, Tokusato’s first-time cam­paign for elec­tive office engaged scores of Local 5 polit­i­cal vol­un­teers and enabled her to speak about a range of union issues includ­ing the community’s stake in main­tain­ing good job-relat­ed benefits.

Local 5 has also been a main spon­sor of AiKea, a two-year-old com­mu­ni­ty-labor coali­tion which cam­paigns for good secure jobs in Hawaii with decent wages, full fam­i­ly med­ical and a guar­an­teed pension.”

Patient Advo­ca­cy

Accord­ing to Kaiser work­er Glo­ria Allen, patients are not get­ting the qual­i­ty care like we had before and they’re pay­ing more for it.” So Local 5 is con­sid­er­ing the intro­duc­tion of leg­is­la­tion that would increase Kaiser’s finan­cial trans­paren­cy and lim­it its abil­i­ty to hike con­sumer rates while main­tain­ing cash reserves in excess of $30 billion.

Anoth­er union-backed bill may seek improve­ments in Kaiser men­tal health cov­er­age, much con­test­ed now in Cal­i­for­nia due to fail­ings doc­u­ment­ed by the Nation­al Union of Health­care Work­ers (NUHW) that result­ed in a state-imposed $4 mil­lion fine.

Already, Local 5 mem­bers have lob­bied the Hawaii leg­is­la­ture on behalf of SB 2054, a bill that would require all state-reg­u­lat­ed health plans to expand their cov­er­age of young peo­ple with autism spec­trum dis­or­ders — a mea­sure opposed by Kaiser.

Ral­ly­ing Oth­er Unions & Polit­i­cal Allies

Kaiser has attacked its own work­ers and its core clients at the same time,” con­tends Local 5 sec­re­tary-trea­sur­er Eric Gill. Union groups have been its core con­stituen­cy” but now face dou­ble-dig­it rate hikes in Hawaii. This has already led Team­sters Local 996 to drop Kaiser as a hospital/​HMO option for its mem­bers and take $10 mil­lion of annu­al health and wel­fare fund spend­ing elsewhere.

Like the Team­sters, Local 5 oper­ates its own health insur­ance fund, joint­ly admin­is­tered with hotel indus­try rep­re­sen­ta­tives. So Unite Here has used that lever­age to restrain Kaiser’s price goug­ing that would oth­er­wise have adverse­ly affect­ed both its Kaiser and non-Kaiser members.

Mem­bers have also tar­get­ed Kaiser’s board, includ­ing cur­rent mem­bers like Edward Pei, who also serves as head of the Hawaii Bankers Asso­ci­a­tion. Local 5 and its sup­port­ers have leaflet­ed the Bank of Hawaii, tak­en up the cause of low-paid bank tellers and con­front­ed Pei per­son­al­ly — all to keep the pres­sure on a top Kaiser decision-maker.

Inter­mit­tent strikes

Like NUHW and Cal­i­for­nia Nurs­es Asso­ci­a­tion (CNA) at Kaiser in 2011-12, Local 5 mem­bers have also orga­nized short-dura­tion protest strikes. Mem­bers par­tic­i­pat­ed in four one-day Kaiser job actions last year around issues includ­ing work­loads, staffing cuts and clin­ic closings.

These minor­i­ty strikes” involved select groups of work­ers, from only a hand­ful to more than 400, in mul­ti­ple depart­ments. One walk­out last year was in response to sev­er­al work­ers being writ­ten up for par­tic­i­pat­ing in an ear­li­er strike.

From Coop­er­a­tion to Conflict

When Cal­i­for­nia indus­tri­al­ist Hen­ry J. Kaiser came to Hawaii in the late 1950’s, such labor-man­age­ment dis­cord was not what he envi­sioned. Kaiser built what is now the Hilton Hawai­ian Vil­lage and brought Kaiser Per­ma­nente from the main­land, where it was a pio­neer­ing, labor-ori­ent­ed pre-paid med­ical plan with its own health care facil­i­ties. Kaiser’s recog­ni­tion of Local 5 in both hos­pi­tal­i­ty and health­care — like the cre­ation of the Kaiser Labor-Man­age­ment Part­ner­ship (LMP) in the mid-1990s — reflect­ed a cor­po­rate deci­sion to work with the union instead of fight­ing it.

At the time, Local 5 was head­ed by Arthur Rut­ledge, a con­ser­v­a­tive busi­ness union­ist who also ran Team­sters Local 996. Rutledge’s son became his suc­ces­sor until he was oust­ed from Local 5 by reform­ers led by Eric Gill in a nar­row elec­tion vic­to­ry in 2000. Gill inher­it­ed a local whose trea­sury was deplet­ed and its finances a mess.

After fend­ing off a Rut­ledge fam­i­ly-led attempt to decer­ti­fy Local 5 in its Kaiser unit, Gill began sys­tem­at­ic rebuild­ing of the local. Its stew­ard struc­ture was revi­tal­ized and help­ful advi­sors from HERE (before its 2004 merg­er with UNITE to form Unite Here) were import­ed from the main­land to aid con­tract nego­ti­a­tions and strikes.

In 2004, with help from SEIU Local 250, lat­er known as Unit­ed Health­care Work­ers (UHW), Local 5 won retiree med­ical cov­er­age at Kaiser and per­suad­ed the employ­er to join its health­care trust. As a non-part­ner­ship union, how­ev­er, Local 5 mem­bers say they have been exclud­ed from unit-based teams” that include RNs rep­re­sent­ed by the OPEIU-affil­i­at­ed Hawaii Nurs­es Asso­ci­a­tion (HNA), which is part of the Labor-Man­age­ment Partnership. 

Care­givers in Local 5 were free to blow the whis­tle on Kaiser staffing cuts in its out-patient clin­ics last year. HNA offi­cials went along with this move and now face inter­nal oppo­si­tion in upcom­ing union elections.

Down­ward Ratchet

Top Kaiser exec­u­tives remain on close terms with the lead­er­ship of UHW/SEIU, but Local 5 has not. In Cal­i­for­nia, UHW rep­re­sents a ser­vice and tech­ni­cal unit of 45,000 mem­bers, includ­ing many of the equiv­a­lent jobs to those rep­re­sent­ed by Unite Here in Hawaii. UHW’s cur­rent lead­er­ship was installed by then-SEIU Pres­i­dent Andy Stern when he trusteed the local in 2009, remov­ing the elect­ed offi­cers who had assist­ed Local 5. These activists became founders of NUHW, which was exclud­ed from the LMP.

While Local 5 mem­bers were bang­ing on Mary Ann Barnes’s door in Hon­olu­lu, UHW offi­cials were wel­com­ing her main­land coun­ter­part to a statewide union lead­er­ship meet­ing. North­ern Cal­i­for­nia Vice Pres­i­dent Greg Adams urged UHW/SEIU to embrace change” and work togeth­er with Kaiser to reduce costs.

Adams appar­ent­ly didn’t pro­pose any cut in his own $2.2 mil­lion salary or reduced pen­sion cov­er­age for him­self. Instead, with the short­sight­ed acqui­es­cence of its part­ner­ship unions, Kaiser hopes to extract cost­ly ben­e­fit con­ces­sions from its small­er, non-LMP unions. These give­backs would then estab­lish a pat­tern for con­tract con­ces­sions by the 90,000 or more work­ers in the coali­tion of LMP unions, which SEIU dominates.

There is no strong nation­al health care union,” Gill not­ed at Local 5’s con­ven­tion last month. There was one, but it got turned around.” The role of UHW/SEIU, which he called a sell­out union on the main­land,” has made defend­ing pen­sions at Kaiser much more difficult.

The main obsta­cle to Kaiser’s divide-and-con­quer strat­e­gy is the con­tin­u­ing resis­tance of three groups: Local 5 in Hawaii, 4,000 NUHW-rep­re­sent­ed Kaiser work­ers in Cal­i­for­nia and hope­ful­ly the CNA’s 18,000 Kaiser mem­bers, who began nego­ti­a­tions over the sum­mer. On Octo­ber 16, they ral­lied, by the hun­dreds in Oak­land after a bar­gain­ing ses­sion on work­place health and safe­ty issues, which focused on CNA pro­pos­als for han­dling patients with Ebola.

Based on the recent Kaiser expe­ri­ences of NUHW and Local 5, defend­ing RN pen­sions will require the same high­ly focused approach.

Steve Ear­ly worked for 27 years as an orga­niz­er and inter­na­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca. He is the author of sev­er­al books, includ­ing Refin­ery Town: Big Oil, Big Mon­ey, and the Remak­ing of an Amer­i­can City (Bea­con Press). 

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