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Saunders at UNAC/UHCP rally: ‘AFSCME stands with you’

AFSCME President Lee Saunders (center, with hat) joined UNAC/UHCP members during a rally on Saturday. (Photo by Mila Myles)
By Pete Levine ·

AFSCME President Lee Saunders joined UNAC/UHCP health care workers at a rally on Saturday in Pasadena, California. His message to those workers who are fighting back against wage cuts and staffing shortages while still suffering under the pandemic’s burden was simple: “AFSCME members stand with you in this fight, and we will fight like hell every day until you win.”

The 18,209 members of AFSCME-affiliated UNAC/UHCP (United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals) recently voted to authorize a strike against Kaiser Permanente, with the vast majority of members voting “yes.” 

For the sacrifices made by these registered nurses, pharmacists, midwives, physical therapists and other health care professionals at Kaiser Permanente's Southern California hospitals and clinics, UNAC/UHCP, bargaining with umbrella group Alliance of Health Care Unions, has asked for 4% wage increases each year for the next three years, along with improved  staffing to ensure patient and worker safety.

However, Kaiser Permanente wants to cut wages for new nurses and health care workers starting in 2023, which would hamper recruitment efforts and in the long run would increase turnover and workplace friction while decreasing union solidarity. So-called “two-tier” wage schemes often are introduced to cut costs but end up costing employers more. (See UNAC/UHCP report on two-tier systems).

“Being a nurse or a health care worker is one of the most difficult jobs imaginable under any circumstances, even on a normal day in America,” said Saunders. “But over the past 20 months, you have been through hell. During this period of turmoil and trauma for our country, no one has risked more. No one has sacrificed more.”

“You would think that this is a moment for Kaiser Permanente to offer a gesture of good faith to its overstressed, overextended workforce,” Saunders added. “This seems like a moment for Kaiser Permanente to continue its long tradition of working together with labor to solve problems.”

Instead, said Saunders, “They’ve slapped you in the face and punched you in the gut. These draconian salary cuts being proposed by Kaiser are an insult to you – and also a threat to the entire health care system. This proposed two-tier wage scheme is right out of the union-busting playbook. It’s all about divide and conquer, driving a wedge between you, pitting worker against worker. You deserve better.”

Jenny Wong-Swanson, a registered nurse at Kaiser Woodland Hills and Western Ventura, shared her story about reaching her breaking point.

“We’d undergone a drastic restructuring of hospital administration at Woodland Hills,” recalled Wong-Swanson, RN, a UNAC/UHCP member. “We’d endured months of increasingly short staffing, been repeatedly asked to do more and more with less resources. Morale was low among my coworkers…transparency from management – nonexistent. We as nurses and health care workers felt unheard and unsupported. For too long, we’d been working short-staffed, with patient safety at risk.”

When, one night after an especially grueling shift, UNAC/UHCP President Denise Duncan, RN, joined other local union officers to talk to Wong-Swanson and her co-workers.

Wong-Swanson said, “I unloaded. I remember saying ‘We work 12-hour shifts. And just because, on any given night, we might make it through a shift on a skeleton crew without something awful happening to a patient, it doesn’t mean it was safe to operate that way. It just means we got lucky.’”

Feeling fed up drove Wong-Swanson to take action. It’s a feeling shared by many union members across the country right now, Saunders noted.

“You are part of a larger movement of working people who are rising up against injustice, who are pushing back against this race to the bottom driven by some of the nation’s top employers,” said Saunders. “If Kaiser thinks they can break you, they are underestimating your resolve, your power, your solidarity. Do not roll over. Do not be cowed. Stick together. Stand and fight.”

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