Workshop Talks: Nurses vs. Kaiser

From the September-October 2014 issue of News & Letters

by Htun Lin

Contract bargaining has begun between the California Nurses Association (CNA) and Kaiser Permanente. CNA has steadfastly rejected management’s demand to hold negotiations in closed sessions.

CNA stated in a position letter that contract bargaining sessions have always been open to any rank-and-file nurse who wants to attend. CNA said they are not about to change that tradition. Besides, as the CNA flyer asks pointedly, “Kaiser, what are you trying to hide from our nurses?”

Rank-and-file nurses complain that, after the grand opening of the new hospital, patient safety is still seriously compromised as they struggle with management’s gross negligence. As one of my co-workers said, “It doesn’t matter how advanced your hi-tech machines are, you’re still not going to get safe, quality care if you don’t have happy caregivers. How can you expect us to be happy when we’re chronically ill-equipped, inadequately supplied, poorly staffed and poorly trained?”

CNA and other healthcare advocates stepped up their criticism of Kaiser during the launch of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) which mandated mental health services. Health workers faced a flood of new patients as Kaiser embarked on an aggressive enrollment campaign to scoop up as many new members as possible through the healthcare exchanges, while cutting staff and denying access. Kaiser officials argue that it is being targeted for criticism over its care only because of a CNA campaign over staffing, as if healthcare access and staffing were separate issues.

SEIU, our union for service workers, would have jumped at the chance to comply with management’s demands if they represented the nurses and therapists. SEIU officials agree with management that the officials are the union and they manage the rank and file.

Kaiser negotiates in secret with SEIU. Rank-and-file members are not involved until they are asked to endorse a pre-ordained result. Many workers complain that when they want to file a grievance, SEIU officials never return their calls. But we workers are summoned by SEIU to attend meetings where the corporate headquarters announce new cost-control mandates.

Kaiser management was recently caught, like Veterans Administration officials, doctoring records to hide lengthy wait times for mental health services. Previously, in June 2013, the California Dept. of Managed Health Care had fined Kaiser $4 million—the second largest penalty in the agency’s history—for systematic negligence and denial of access to mental health services for its members.

KAISER DEHUMANIZED PATIENTS AND WORKERS

When six mental health patients took their own lives last October (See Aug. 13 East Bay Express), care workers demanded that Kaiser increase staffing, given their “unsafe and unsustainable” workload. Their demands were ignored. The widow of a patient who committed suicide complained, “No one at Kaiser ever looked at my husband as a human being. They treated him like a medical record number…I thought Kaiser would be cost-effective…a fatal mistake.”

The capitalist wants to forget about the actual laborer in the workplace where what is important is getting them more profit out of our labor power. SEIU follows management in forgetting the laborer, which cannot be separated from labor power. This separation is at the heart of our alienation in the shop.

Management begins its systematic negligence towards patients by ignoring the thoughts and opinions of us workers. Patients are treated like commodities on an assembly line because workers’ activity, our labor power, is treated as a commodity first. It is from this commodity every other commodity is derived.

This attitude separating thinking from doing unites management and labor officials. Treating patients like human beings begins with treating the worker like a complete human being. Only by reclaiming our laboring activity united with our thoughts can we, as a society, overcome the barriers to humane care for patients and a humane workshop.

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