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North Bay Kaiser workers strike ends; but striking employees warn of more picketing

Martin Espinoza / The Press Democrat

Oct 6, 2023

An estimated 600 Kaiser Permanente workers march around the Santa Rosa Medical Center Friday afternoon, during the last of a three-day, nationwide strike against the health care giant, Friday, Oct. 6, 2023.

Hundreds of North Bay Kaiser Permanente workers were set to end their three-day strike early Saturday morning, with many expressing hope they will reach agreement over a new labor contract in the coming days, but also pledging their readiness to strike again if necessary.

“We don’t want to come out again if we don’t have to,” said Jeannie Gerbich, an ultrasound technician who has worked for Kaiser for 13 years. “But we’re willing to do so if negotiations don’t go well.”

On Friday, Gerbich who is part of the local bargaining team for Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West, was among an estimated 700 workers who picketed Friday in front of Kaiser’s Santa Rosa Medical Center on Bicentennial Way.

Kaiser workers hit the picket line across the North Bay

Taking cover from the sun and drinking lots of water, strikers marched up and down Mendocino Avenue with bull horns and signs that decried staffing shortages they say are putting patients in unsafe conditions and leading to employee burnout.

About noon, some 600 or more workers entered the medical campus and marched around the outside of medical offices, the hospital and emergency department, though they were reportedly told not to do so. Security workers simply watched as the long line of strikers snaked its way around the complex.

After the March, the workers gathered at the corner of Bicentennial Way and Mendocino Avenue for a rally.

“Thank you moms, dads, babies, cousins, aunts, uncles, neighbors that came out today,” Gerbich said over a bullhorn before giving details of Kaiser’s latest wage offer.

“Is this about money or is this about outsourcing and staffing as well?” she said to cheers from the workers. “We can’t give our patients and customers service unless we are staffed properly.”

Gerbich said Kaiser claims it doesn’t have pre-pandemic staffing figures for comparison purposes, “but I’m looking at all of you and I know we are are all short staffed.”

The three-day strike, which started at 6 a.m. Wednesday, was set to end at 6 a.m. Saturday. It impacted about 1,800 workers in Sonoma County, at multiple Kaiser facilities in Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park and Petaluma.

The local work stoppage was part of a broader strike against Kaiser this week, with thousands of workers in the Bay Area and across the state joining tens of thousands of others in multiple states, including Oregon, Washington and Colorado and the Washington D.C.

The labor action, involving 75,000 workers in a coalition of health care unions, is being billed as the largest health care workers strike in U.S. history. Those picketing are calling for better wages, protections against workforce outsourcing and significant steps toward resolving staffing shortages.

The Sonoma County workers are represented by the SEIU-UHW, the largest union in the coalition. The union also represents 200 Kaiser workers in Napa County. In California alone, SEIU-UHW represents 59,000 Kaiser workers.

Locally, SEIU-UHW has been in negotiations with Kaiser for a new contract since spring of this year. The workers’ contract ended Sept. 30.

Union representatives confirmed Friday they’re leaving the door open for another 10-day strike if talks after this weekend do not yield better terms for workers. On Friday morning, both sides of the labor dispute scheduled additional bargaining sessions for next Thursday and Friday.

Union officials said they want Kaiser to put clear limits on outsourcing jobs. On Thursday, Kaiser officials, in an email, declined to comment on specific details about the negotiations, “out of respect for the bargaining process.”

“We will work hard to reach an agreement so that together, we can all return to delivering on the mission of Kaiser Permanente for the benefit of our members, patients, employees, physicians, customers, and communities,” Kaiser said in the email.

Striking workers said Kaiser has increased its latest wage proposal, which buoyed hopes that an agreement could be achieved in the near future. But they said insisted Kaiser must grant greater job protections against outsourcing staff.

At the picket line Friday, workers seemed upbeat and even festive. At the intersection of Mendocino Avenue and Bicentennial Way, some striking workers sang songs while others line danced to the Spanish version “Achy Breaky Heart.“

Sonoma County Supervisor James Gore visited the picket line during the noontime rally. He spoke briefly with Gerbich, who told him, “this is our best turnout yet.”

Gore, in an interview, said the strike was part of a larger workforce reckoning that has taken root since the pandemic and is also impacting government and other private employers, as well.

He said county government, the largest employer in the region, recently approved county contracts that will hopefully “stop the bleeding” and address the county’s own workforce shortages. But more needs to be done, he said.

One of the strikers, who asked that her name not be used because she feared retaliation, said Kaiser wages have not kept up with the area’s ever-increasing cost of living. The worker, who is a patient care technician in the cardiac unit, said staff reductions on her team mean more patients for those who are left.

“We used to have eight patients, now we have 12,” she said. “We can’t give the same quality of care. Patients have to wait on us more when they call for help.”

The SEIU-UHW workers were joined on the picket line by local members of Engineers and Scientists of California Local 20, which represents 1,900 Bay Area workers. These include optometrists, genetic counselors, home health therapists and clinical laboratory scientists.

“Our ultimate goal is to support UHW in their fight for a better contract and good salariesz and for Kaiser to negotiate in good faith,” said Fernando Echeverria, a Local 20 labor representative.

Billy Occhipinti, who works in the Santa Rosa hospital’s materials management department, said he was heartened by the turnout during the strike. He said it was the largest strike since since he joined Kaiser nearly 40 years ago.

In a 1989 work stoppage, when about 9,000 Kaiser workers in Northern California went on strike, Occhipinti recalled seeing between 300 and 400 Sonoma County workers on the picket line.

Asked if he thinks he’ll have to strike again, he said he hopes not.

“It was draining,” he said. “But if we have to, yes we will, to make a statement. Outsourcing is my biggest concern.”

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