When Workers Fight

Published on ZNet, by Cal Winslow, Nov 24, 2015.

The therapists, counselors, and social workers at Kaiser Permanente in California have won a magnificent victory. In a last minute retreat, in the face of an open-ended strike, Kaiser, the giant California health care corporation, settled with 1400 workers and their union, the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW).  

The therapists’ victory is a landmark, in healthcare and above all in mental healthcare. The bottom line: these workers have won patient care ratios, they’ve won the right to advocate for patients, and they won these in a context of a nationwide drive to cut costs and press productivity in an industry awash in cash.

For Barry Kamil, a psychologist with 34 years experience at Kaiser in Richmond, CA, “It’s an historic victory. It puts our union in the forefront of the movement for getting mental health care on par with medical care. Kaiser’s resistance has been unbelievable; they wanted to eliminate us as a union.

The Kaiser workers won on economic demands as well; 6 % the first year, 4.5% plus bonuses in the second and third years of a three year contract. They protected their pension benefits; Kaiser – what’s new – proposed erasing their defined benefit plan.

The contract, their first contract, is the culmination of a five year fight … //

… The issue of pensions was also central; Kaiser proposed – and still wants – defined benefit pension plans eliminated. It wants these switched over to individual 401K plans. That is, it wants to offload all responsibility for providing for the pensions of its workers. Certainly, Kaiser is not alone in this. Cutting pensions is today a central plank in the nation’s employers’ assault on workers: Caterpillar, Verizon, and Boeing have all won major victories here.

The trucking industry is now proposing massive cuts in the pensions of retired members of the Teamsters Union in the central states – some retired workers will lose as much as $20,000 a year. But, says, Ken Paff, the National Organizer for Teamsters of a Democratic Union (TDU), “We’re fighting back and we can win. Pensions are a huge issue for us. When unions fight for pensions, the public is on our side. They’re on our side now. The AARP is on our side. Maybe not everyone has a pension but they know someone who does, often a family member, a parent. The defense of pensions has to be a top drawer issue for unions”

All the more important, then, is the NUHW victory. According to Papazian, “Our strikes forced Kaiser to dial back. First they dropped the 401(K) plan, proposing instead two tiering it … //

… Clem Papazian believes, “This is just the start. We see ourselves at Kaiser as the tip of the spear in holding the whole industry to decent standards – of timely access for mental health patients and regulations that establish parity with medical health.

“Kaiser is in no way unique; the problems exist throughout the system, but Kaiser holds itself the leader and in fact they are big enough to shape the industry. So our work at Kaiser is really about moving the whole industry.”

(full text).

(Cal Winslow is the author of Labor’s Civil War in California (PM Press) and an editor of Rebel Rank and File, Labor Militancy and Revolt from Below During the Long 1970s (Verso). His latest book is E.P. Thompson and the Making of the New Left (Monthly Review). He can be reached by email).
(Cal Winslow’s books on amazon).


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