Open Letter from BAMN Union Organizer re Kaiser Contract Vote



ATTENTION ALL SEIU-UHW, UNAC and other Coalition Union members:

For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Adam Lerman. I have been a ward clerk on 6 West at Kaiser Sunset for almost 6 years. I was elected to this year’s contract bargaining team as an observer from SEIU-UHW. I have been a shop steward since the fall of 2010. Like most of you, I have spent the last few weeks reflecting on the tentative agreement (TA) reached in the early morning hours of Friday, May 11 between Kaiser management and the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions (CKPU). After much thought, I have come to the unavoidable conclusion that we should be setting our sights higher than we have been in these negotiations.

If we accept this first offer, we will risk missing an historic opportunity to shape the entire future path of healthcare reform and unionism in America.

As a country, we are at the very beginning of monumental changes about to happen in the healthcare industry. We may not know all of the specifics yet as we await a ruling from the Supreme Court on Obama’s healthcare reform act, but we do know that the door is about to swing wide open for Kaiser, SEIU and all the Coalition unions to grow greatly in a short period of time over the next few years.

The moment we now face, the chance we now have, to put our stamp on and determine the ground rules for the whole project of healthcare reform, and the expansion of quality union jobs that will follow, may not exist when we next bargain. Our current situation is unique and unprecedented. Now is the moment – we don’t want to miss it. We must take a stand today.

As a nationwide coalition of almost 95,000 skilled healthcare workers, we possess immense power.

We possess the power to help ensure that our children and grandchildren will inherit a nation with expanding opportunity and an increasing number of good solid union jobs in healthcare and beyond. Whenever real change or progress has happened in this nation’s history, unions have been in the forefront leading the fight. When we win gains for workers, we win gains for all those who face discrimination, inequality and injustice.

The truth is that we have let up our pressure on Kaiser just when greater progress is within reach.

The Obama administration’s only real reservation with anointing Kaiser today as its official nationwide model is its lack of certainty around whether labor peace can be assured with SEIU and the other CKPU unions as millions of new members flood into KP and our bargaining units swell quickly. Therefore, the last thing Kaiser wants is the appearance of friction with the unions.

Any threat of actual upheaval with labor at Kaiser could result in the White House choosing to move in another direction.

This state of affairs means that Kaiser’s hands are tied. However, instead of deciding to be more aggressive in our negotiations because of this, our team has backed off and endorsed the first TA. This is a mistake. We should be taking advantage of our increased leverage. Now is the moment to use this National Agreement to lock in specific guarantees that stipulate everywhere Kaiser grows, our unions will grow as well. The current TA language (and that of previous National Agreements) leaves much of the specifics for the rules and procedures related to CKPU growth too general and mostly left up to a subcommittee to be convened after the contract is ratified. This is inadequate.

What is agreed to in this current TA regarding Westside Hospital in Portland should be the standard for all future Kaiser growth.

We need wholesale unequivocal agreement from Kaiser that any expansion of the organization will automatically result in the growth of our unions.

If we decide to exercise our leverage, we can get that written into this agreement now. We can, we should and we must win this crucial concrete agreement from management not just for us but for the generations to come.

Yes, it is true that the guarantees in the current TA around our pension, our health benefits and our wages should be considered an important victory especially considering the awful national climate in labor relations. We should feel proud of what has been agreed to thus far. No one else, anywhere in the US, is receiving similar non-concessionary contract offers. It is a testament to our strength.

It is also true that the current TA leaves much room for improvement on wage increases, equalizing pay between northern and southern California, enforcing safe staffing ratios as Kaiser grows and as our patients’ acuity continues to rise, and many other issues. We should still be fighting around these issues too. However, my main concern is that we should not waste this chance to make lasting history.

Also, the entire “Total Health” initiative included in this TA should be thrown into the trash bin.

Just like Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No to Drugs” campaign in the 1980s failed to address the true root causes of drug addiction and instead placed all the blame at the feet of individuals, the “Total Health” initiative wrongly places the blame for the poor health of Americans on our individual shoulders.

Let’s be clear: We are increasingly unhealthy and getting sicker because of broad social and political problems not simply because we can’t say no to soda and McDonalds.  The “Total Health” proposal in this current TA is reactionary, conservative and misguided.

For these reasons, I have decided to urge everyone to VOTE NO on the TA and send the bargaining team back to the table. Some may ask: “Isn’t there a risk that Kaiser could take back all the positive parts of this TA if we reject it?” The true risk is in not fighting to our full potential and possibly allowing this opportunity to slip through our fingers.

If we double our determination now, we can set a standard for the nation that all new jobs created by healthcare reform will be union jobs.

That is one of the great benefits of having a true National Agreement. We all know that what happens at Kaiser has an immediate and deep impact on what the rest of the industry decides to do.

To delay this fight will, at best, make our efforts more difficult during the next contract talks and will, at worst, cause us to miss this opening altogether. At this point, Kaiser is not in a position to declare a real war on the unions if they hope to remain in the good graces of President Obama. We should take advantage of the current situation to win as much as possible for our members and for the thousands of new healthcare workers that are expected to be hired in the next few years.

As a union movement, as workers, as leaders, we should be acting on our ambitions and our hopes – fighting for our vision of what the future should hold. This particular contract negotiation is a hugely significant turning point. We should not settle for this TA just because it’s much worse in most other places. That would be shortsighted. If we opt to fully wield our real power, our victories will be benchmarks for all healthcare workers and the nation as a whole. We can raise the ceiling on what everyone’s expectations are for their lives, their jobs and their communities.

Luckily, we have the ability to think seriously about what has been put before us and make an informed, considered decision. It’s not too late. We can still choose to fight on and act on what we know to be true – that if we don’t take this stand and demand the kind of assurances and improvements mentioned above, no one else can or will do it.

We have a responsibility to our co-workers, our families and our communities to use our power to determine how healthcare will be reshaped and therefore have a great influence on the entire direction of our country.

I firmly and honestly believe we can only accomplish this by voting no and returning to the table.

While I most certainly also have complaints about the lack of real democracy and transparency in the entire negotiation and ratification process thus far, they are not the driving force behind my reservations about the TA. We can and must fix the problems in these areas but the issues which confront us are bigger and broader than organizational shortcomings alone. The task confronting us is political, not parochial.

Do not confuse me with the unserious sideline critics from NUHW. The only way forward for the RNs and others currently represented by NUHW is for them to return to the Coalition and join the rest of us in our huge, powerful, national organization. If we in SEIU and the CKPU can do what is necessary to further our struggle and stop voluntarily curtailing our united strength, I am confident we can rebuild this country’s union movement and vastly improve the prospects for the future.


In Solidarity,
Adam Lerman
[email protected]

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About The Author

BAMN is a mass, democratic, integrated, national organization dedicated to building a new mass civil rights movement to defend affirmative action,integration, and the other gains of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and to advance the struggle for equality in American society by any means necessary.

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