In California over the course of the last month, 19,000 nurses working at facilities owned by medical giant Kaiser Permanente won a significant victory. Their new contract includes several important new provisions demanded by the union and forcing back all of the concessions originally demanded by Kaiser. California Nurses Association (CNA) / National Nurses United has risen to be one of the strongest and most radical faces of organized labor, with California having one of the highest proportion of nurses unionized in the country. The fruits of their action are here with this contract and will continue to grow. Alongside the recent victory of West Virginia teachers, the Kaiser nurses are showing the way forward – a path to win more victories.
Kaiser Permanente – Profits Over Patients & Workers
Kaiser Permanente is a conglomerate of medical facilities with different business practices. It is an enormous company that generates vast wealth from the labor of nurses and many other workers and by constantly raising insurance premiums for its customers. Kaiser’s CEO is paid about $10 million per year and the company has cash reserves of $21 billion. Even from this extremely comfortable financial position, the company fights against raises for nurses. Kaiser and other medical companies strive to cut costs at every turn and it is only through the organized struggle of the workers that wages are raised and patient care is improved.
Crucially, the nurses defeated a key Kaiser demand that attempted to divide the workforce with a two-tiered wage system. Newly hired nurses in Sacramento and the Central Valley would have been paid 10-20% less, despite performing all the same work. This would have been a wedge between existing nurses and their newer colleagues. Instead, the nurses won a sizeable wage increase for all the workers under their contract and defeated this attack.
Additionally Kaiser is implementing a new electronic medical record system, EPIC, to save money and was intending to put all the stresses of the change onto nurses. Technical failures during implementation can lead to missed pharmacy orders, data going missing, and other problems that can hurt patients. The NNU put the patients and nurses first, winning additional hiring. A strike against Kaiser would have exposed the company’s willingness to risk patient care.
Threat of Strike Brings Contract Victory
Faced with Kaiser’s concessionary attacks, the nurses voted overwhelmingly in early March to authorize a possible strike. The threat of a strike was a key factor in forcing Kaiser to accept the workers’ demands. The threat was credible not only because of the near unanimity of the vote, but also because the nurses have taken strike action in the past and have developed a reputation as some of the most militant workers in America today. Kaiser withdrew their demands and gave in to those of the nurses. The union was able to bargain from a position of strength because they did not ask merely for the minimum demands that would be acceptable to their workers, but instead set big goals to improve the workplace for both nurses and patients.
As a result, the members of the CNA are celebrating protections for nurses and gains in patient care. When the nurses fought for increased hiring in each workplace, they argued that this would enable patients to be better attended to and nurses to get covered while on break. They also won the inclusion of 600 RN Patient Care Coordinators into the contract. These workers had previously voted to join the union. But Kaiser defied the ruling of the National Labor Relations Board and left them out of CNA’s collective bargaining, until now.
Nurses calculate that this contract equals the equivalent of a $400 million transfer from Kaiser’s hoarded profits and into the hands of the hard working people who generated that wealth in the first place.
Importance of this Struggle
This struggle fits into the small but growing trend of workers seeking to fight for progress in pay and working conditions. Teachers are putting up a monumental battle to regain lost ground following the victory of education workers in West Virginia.
The nurses and teachers can learn much from each other’s victories. One thing that is clear is that workers are stronger when they link their struggle for better pay and conditions to winning wider changes that directly improve the lives of working people and their communities. We need to rebuild the traditions of solidarity that underpinned the powerful labor struggles of the past. Without the workers, no company or institution can continue to function, a fact that gives us tremendous power when we organize and act together.
The CNA is a vital political force, not just in the fight for fair wages, but also in fighting for the health of the people of California. The nurses have been instrumental in the campaign for a statewide Medicare-for-All-style, single-payer health care system. SB562, which would have provided medical coverage free of premiums or copays to every resident of California, was pushed hard by CNA and was only stopped when the Democratic Speaker of the Assembly scuttled the popular bill. Other unions should take this example and join the nurses in future pushes for single-payer health care at the state and national levels. The nurses are a prime example of how fighting unions and the labor movement can use its power to advance the interests of workers as a whole.
The Way Forward
California nurses won a significant battle with the new Kaiser contract. But each victory must be seen as a moment to build on, a movement in the making. From here we have an opportunity to bring more and more working people into union and political activity. Union organizing and solidarity campaigns can help connect the fight for wages and jobs to the struggles working people face in other aspects of life: skyrocketing rents, sexual harassment, gun violence, deportations, and racist policing.