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Kaiser Permanente employees authorize strike amid negotiations

The Kaiser Permanente Baltimore Harbor Medical Center is now open on Pratt Street in downtown Baltimore. (image by photographer Maria Bryk). (PRNewsFoto/Kaiser Permanente of the Mid-Atlantic)

The Kaiser Permanente Baltimore Harbor Medical Center on Pratt Street in downtown Baltimore. (image by photographer Maria Bryk). (PRNewsFoto/Kaiser Permanente of the Mid-Atlantic)

Members of a union that includes employees of Kaiser Permanente’s Maryland health centers have voted to authorize a strike next month as part of ongoing collective bargaining negotiations with the nonprofit health care company.

The Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 2 voted last week to authorize a seven-day strike beginning Oct. 14, joining employees in other Kaiser regions.

The union covers all employees at Kaiser’s clinics who are not doctors or nurses. About 4,500 employees from the mid-Atlantic region — which includes Maryland, Virginia and Washington — participated in the vote, and 97% of those employees voted to authorize the strike.

The union hopes that the strike authorization is a tool to help it achieve its goals of protecting higher pay for new hires and preserving their pension fund, said Grace Reckers, a union organizer.

“We want to come to a settlement,” she said. “We don’t want to have to go on a strike.”

The local union also hopes to match a national contract that would pay local workers more.

The national contract expired last September and was renewed for a year while the two sides negotiated. The local contract is set to expire later this year, Reckers said.

OPEIU Local 2 is part of a coalition of unions representing Kaiser employees that is bargaining with the health care provider. With 80,000 workers in six states and D.C., the unions believe this would be the largest strike in the U.S. in more than two decades.

The two sides have been bargaining for months, and Kaiser believes that it has made a competitive offer.

In a statement, Kaiser said its offer includes higher higher-than-market averages and maintains  its benefits. The company also rejected union claims that Kaiser would cut pay and make changes to the pension plan.

“Unfortunately, the OPEIU leadership has decided to use the threat of a strike as a bargaining tactic, designed to divide employees and mischaracterize Kaiser Permanente’s position, even though most of the contracts don’t expire until October,” Kaiser said in a statement.

Kaiser Permanente operates 20 medical centers in Maryland, including three hubs, facilities that include all services under one roof. It has hubs in Gaithersburg, Halethorpe and Largo and plans to open a fourth hub in Timonium in 2021.

Kaiser is a health insurer whose model includes running medical centers as a way to help reduce costs. Kaiser also believes the hubs can help improve patient outcomes.

The strike would include picket lines at these locations. Members who show up to the picket lines will receive a small stipend from the union’s strike fund, Reckers said.

The union understands that a strike could be disruptive to patients who go to the centers, but believes that the strike will help improve its leverage. It also believes improving pay and benefits for employees will help improve patient services down the line by attracting higher-quality employees.

“It’s really up to Kaiser to end the strike and to make sure that patients are taken care of,” Reckers said. “If they want to make sure that patients are taken care of then they can come to the bargaining table.”

But Kaiser said the threat of a strike was “not fair” to the communities Kaiser serves.

“At a time when we are working hard to keep our care affordable, the Coalition’s demands are not fair to our members and the communities we serve,” Kaiser’s statement said. “Despite the union leadership’s disruptive tactics, we are hopeful our employees will value our proposal and OPEIU and the other Coalition unions will move forward with us to reach a new agreement.”

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