FROM THE PICKET: MENTAL HEALTH CARE WORKERS STRIKE AT KAISER DECEMBER 10 - 14

The Mission of DSA-LA’s Labor Committee is not just to build cross-industrial solidarity amongst its union members, but to encourage all of our chapter members to be protagonists in their own labor struggles. To that end, we are proud to share a personal account from one of our own committee members, Eric Pierce, a mental health care worker at Kaiser Permanente and a member of the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW). Eric will be picketing along with his coworkers to fight for mental health access and better working conditions, and we are proud to be standing alongside him in that fight.

- DSA-LA Labor Committee

How did our current system of health care delivery develop in this country?  Many tie its roots back to the 1940s when the United States’ industrial output was mobilized for war.  To keep the workers healthy and engaged in production, the bosses and the war profiteers disguised a human right as a gift to workers: health care via insurance premiums.  Since that time, health care has been made contingent on employment, where the worker pays for care. Huge industries have grown out of this using this capitalist model to make staggering profits off the backs of healthcare workers and the patients that they treat.

Unions have been the strongest line of defense against the capitalist “race to the bottom” in pursuit of profit.  Today our union, the NUHW, and the patients we treat are feeling the cold and cruel model of Kaiser healthcare capitalism, “profits before patients.”   Kaiser has flouted the law in its negligent treatment of mental health patients.  A 2011 complaint filed by Kaiser clinicians resulted in California’s Department of Managed Health Care issuing a $4 million fine against Kaiser in 2013 for violating the state’s Mental Health Parity Act and timely access rules.  The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008 (MHPAEA or Parity Act) requires health insurance carriers to achieve coverage parity between Mental Health/Substance Use Disorders (MH/SUD) and medical/surgical benefits.

NUHW MUST STRIKE to improve the conditions of its workers and to improve the access to vital mental health services for their patients.  Nearly 4,000 NUHW members throughout California at Kaiser Permanente are going on strike from December 10-14th. The workers do this to protest Kaiser’s refusal to bargain in good faith toward a fair contract. To date, Kaiser has refused to ensure that our hospitals and clinics are staffed adequately to provide safe and timely access to care. Conditions are especially bad in our psychiatry departments, where patients often have to wait six weeks or more to be treated. Theses delays cause an increase in symptoms and even death.  In September 2015 Barbra Ragan, an 83 year old long time Kaiser patient with severe depression was told she would have to wait several weeks for her next counseling appointment. Barbra took the elevator to the top floor of the parking lot at Kaiser and jumped to her death. Her husband later commented “It’s like sending a message right to them, You couldn’t take care of me, so here I am.”

At a time when Kaiser is making record profits ($9.8 billion since 2016) and Kaiser executives are being paid like Fortune 500 CEOs (CEO Bernard Tyson enjoyed $10 million in total compensation in 2016), it is unconscionable that they insist on keeping pay and benefit levels for mental health professionals below the standards for almost all other Kaiser employees.  CARE DELAYED IS CARE DENIED!

Bernard Tyson and his healthcare capitalist cronies also seek to keep mental health workers in poverty after retirement.  In 2014, Kaiser ripped away the defined pension plan for new NUHW members, forcing all NUHW Kaiser employees into the capitalists’ favorite game of roulette: the stock market. Kaiser now only offers a 401k plan for NUHW union members hired in or after 2014. Bernard Tyson did this despite setting up ten (10) defined pension plans for his top administrators.  Workers who have devoted their lives to their patients and the organization are forced to gamble with their retirement, and when you gamble the house always wins. Instead of gambling, we’ve decided to throw down our cards and strike. We strike and we fight so that all can retire with dignity, and force Kaiser to restore defined pension plans for all workers.

Our strike is only the start of our actions to reform our greed-driven health “care” system.  Soon our union will join with other unions, community organizations, and the American people themselves demanding Medicare for All and drafting legislation to put patients before profits.  We ask that you stand with us, we ask that you picket with us, and we ask you to support us in any other ways you can. Workers and patients are standing together so that no patient is denied care.