OAKLAND — More than 9,000 Kaiser Permanente employees went on strike Monday at all 27 Northern California Kaiser hospitals and clinics, setting up picket lines that thousands of non-striking registered nurses refused to cross.
All medical facilities remained open, Kaiser spokesman Daniel D. Danzig said, but many were forced to cancel routine appointments and elective surgeries. "We can go a long time providing necessary services," he said.
Kaiser, the nation's largest private health-care provider, serves 2 million members in Northern California--about one in four people from Gilroy to the Oregon border.
None of Kaiser's nine Southern California medical centers are affected by the strike, a hospital spokeswoman in Los Angeles said. "There is no connection," Janice Seib said. "The phones here have been ringing off the hook with calls from worried members. We are an autonomous region and bargain separately with the unions. Our contract with the same union doesn't expire until April."
Local 250 of the Service Employees International Union, representing about 8,700 housekeeping and nursing aides, licensed vocational nurses, admitting clerks and electrocardiogram and X-ray technicians, voted overwhelmingly to strike, primarily over Kaiser's demand to set up a two-tiered wage system. Unions representing nearly 1,000 lab technologists and optometrists also voted to join the strike.
Kaiser officials advised members of the health maintenance organization to keep their appointments unless contacted by their hospital. "If we have to send people elsewhere, we will pay the bill," Danzig said. "But only if Kaiser refers them."
The union is predicting a long strike. "It looks like both sides are hunkered down for the long haul," said Ray Abernathy, a Local 250 spokesman. "We're not talking about weeks or days, but months."
The most recent strike by Local 250, in 1973, lasted two weeks.
More than half of the 5,500 registered nurses working at the struck Kaiser centers refused to cross Monday's picket lines, said Jessie Bostelle, spokeswoman for the California Nurses Assn. "We are not on strike," she said. "Our contract has a no-strike clause, but individual members are free to honor picket lines if they give their supervisors written notification beforehand."
About 100 sign-carrying pickets marched outside Oakland's Kaiser Medical Center singing "we shall overcome, Kaiser," and wearing "Kaiser works because we do" buttons. Laurie Zoloth, a registered nurse at the hospital, said she was honoring the line "out of enlightened self-interest. We'll get the same package or worse. We feel very deeply it's our strike, too."
Kaiser officials at the Oakland center said they had canceled 3,000 appointments and surgeries scheduled for Monday and Tuesday.
Dr. Ken Raap, 33, a foot specialist, said he called his patients on Friday and told them not to come into the Oakland hospital if there was a strike Monday unless they had an emergency. Working Monday as a nurse in the orthopedic ward, Raap said he was "doing a little bit of everything, but I had a teaching course last night from my sister who is a registered nurse."
Local 250's contract with Kaiser expired Saturday after almost two months of negotiations. The union had sought 5% wage increases across the board for 1986 and 1987, some work-condition provisions, such as not rotating shifts, as well as an absolute ban on the hiring of subcontractors by Kaiser.
Kaiser's final offer was a three-year wage freeze, three bonuses through 1988 totaling $2,100 and a two-tier pay system that would have provided 30% lower wages for new hires at eight Kaiser facilities outside of the Bay Area. Wages for Local 250 members now range from $9 to $16 per hour.
No new negotiations between the union and Kaiser have been planned, both sides said.
Spokesman Danzig said Kaiser is in sound financial condition but that competitive pressures from other health maintenance organizations led to Kaiser's final offer. "We have to do it (wage freeze and two-tier) now or face a more drastic situation later," he said, adding that while Kaiser membership grew 4% last year, many of its competitors' memberships grew by as much as 40%.
He said Kaiser wages ranged from 9% to more than 35% above the prevailing pay rates at competing Northern California hospitals. "By holding our wages at current levels, the other hospitals will eventually catch up with us," he said.
"There is no economic justification" for Kaiser's offer, union spokesman Abernathy said. "They are flush with money."