Kaiser Permanente workers began voting Monday to authorize a nationwide unfair-labor-practices strike in October, which would be the nation’s biggest strike in two decades, labor leaders said.

Voting by members of the Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West was being conducted at Kaiser facilities in Los Angeles and across the state. Balloting by members of the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions — which includes labor unions in California, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Hawaii, Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia — will continue into early September.

The coalition overall represents about 80,000 workers.

A strike authorization vote does not necessarily mean a walkout will occur. It is often used to increase leverage by a union at the bargaining table.

Union officials said its local agreement with Kaiser does not expire until Sept. 30, so a walkout could not take place until after that date.

Arlene Peasnall, senior vice president of human resources for Kaiser Permanente, called the strike authorization vote “counterproductive” and a “bullying tactic designed to pressure us during the contract bargaining process,” particularly since “most of their contracts do not expire until October.”

“Kaiser Permanente is committed to providing our staff with highly competitive salaries and wages and also to fulfilling our mission to make health care more affordable,” she said. “The Coalition has been a part of our labor management partnership for more than 20 years and certainly knows this to be true.”

She accused SEIU-UHW leaders of engaging in a “power play” within the coalition, prompting many of its member unions to break away from the group and successfully negotiate a separate labor deal.

“The Coalition’s proposal would increase our wages on average 32% above the market over the next five years, adding a billion dollars to our labor costs,” Peasnall said.

Union officials said a strike by the Kaiser workers would be the largest since the Teamsters strike at United Parcel Service in 1997, began after contract talks stalled July 12. In December 2018, the National Labor Relations Board charged Kaiser Permanente with failing to bargain in good faith, according to the union. Since then, Kaiser has continued to bargain in bad faith and commit additional unfair labor practices, said Sean Wherley, a spokesman for the Kaiser workers.

“While we’re working for a healthy America, Kaiser Permanente, a nonprofit, has abandoned its mission to serve communities in favor of earning massive profits and enriching top executives,” said Eli Quintero, a Psychology Social Clerk at Kaiser Permanente Los Angeles Medical Center. “It’s those executives and the corporation’s bank account that are thriving as Kaiser raises prices for patients, undermines quality healthcare, refuses to bargain in good faith, and attacks the frontline healthcare workers who have made it successful.”

Wherley said workers are fighting to:

— “Restore a true worker-management partnership, and have Kaiser bargain in good faith”;

— “Ensure safe staffing and compassionate use of technology”;

— “Build the workforce of the future to deal with major projected shortages of licensed and accredited staff in the coming years”; and

— “Protect middle-class jobs with wages and benefits that can support families.”

As a nonprofit, Kaiser is supposed to directly serve the public interest in exchange for billions in tax breaks, Wherley said. But in recent years, he added, Kaiser has departed from its mission by squeezing out billion-dollar profits, providing excessive compensation to executives — such as $16 million to its CEO — failing to serve its share of low-income patients and attacking Kaiser workers.

Peasnall insisted that the contract terms proposed by Kaiser to the Coalition are in line with those included in contracts with nearly five dozen other unions.

“Kaiser Permanente has a long history of partnering with labor,” she said. “We remain committed to being competitive in our wages and benefits as well as to lead affordability in health care, continue to transform care delivery and service and return value to our members and customers.”

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