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“From heroes to zeroes”

Report on the Kaiser Permanente strike

Tempest’s Promise Li reports on Kaiser Permanente workers’ views of their three-day strike, which ended October 10 with a tentative agreement but no contract. Voting on the agreement will end on November 3. The emboldened workers at Kaiser have held open the possibility of another strike.

“From heroes to zeroes” is how rank-and-file worker and strike captain Lillie Loyd summed up the feelings of the tens of thousands of Kaiser Permanente workers. This mobilization is the largest healthcare workers’ strike in U.S. history. Loyd, a clinical lab assistant in Chino Hills, had been out on strike with hundreds of other colleagues and supporters for the second day when I met her at the Baldwin Park picket line. In the first week of October, the workers of the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions authorized a three-day strike to force management to the table to listen to their demands.

The workers called for a 25-dollar wage guarantee, more staffing support, and other demands. Multiple workers mentioned how health care workers have been championed as “unsung heroes” during the pandemic, as lift technician Jesse Felix puts it, but they have not been treated as such by Kaiser. Felix said that he is the only patient lift technician in the post-anesthesia care unit (PACU) at his workplace. This means that reinforcement support from other teams is consistently needed to help him assist his patients. He said that not only has this staffing shortage been worse in recent years—Kaiser actually cut people’s work hours and reduced his team after the pandemic started.

Another worker, Marco Del Rosario, testified to many of the same concerns that Felix raised. He is the only physical assistant at the Baldwin Park facility, and has witnessed countless patients asking for more resources and support.

The performative celebration of health care workers in recent years belies the worsening reality of their increased exploitation. Loyd shared that the staffing shortages have led to widespread overwork among workers, which then translates into patients not getting the quality care they need. She mentions slower turnaround time for patients, longer appointment wait times, lab test results being delayed, and mammograms for cancer patients taking months—often because one worker is forced to do three people’s jobs.

When workers raise these issues at their workplace, they receive the same response from their managers every time: it’s “beyond their control”, or it “exceeds their budget.” Del Rosario said that Kaiser promotes this “illusion” that everyone must stay within budget limits. But workers are asking, “what is this budget?” When workers demand to see this company budget, however, the management refuses to transparently disclose details.

Many on the picket line recognized that the issues they face are systemic, industry-wide ones. Sherrell, a cleaning worker at Kaiser, discussed how these measures from the company are linked to problems of outsourcing and automation across the industry. She said that the company wants cheaper labor and fewer staff, but that she and other workers have observed that company profits have grown, thanks to their diversifying investments in different industries even beyond health care. Indeed, Kaiser’s profit gains have skyrocketed in recent years: it made more than $24 billion in the last five years, with its CEO making $16 million in 2021 alone, and with more than a hundred billion in investments in industries as diverse as fossil fuel to for-profit prisons. For Loyd, the problem is crystal clear: “corporate greed.”

Kaiser’s profits do not translate into better benefits and working conditions for its workers, despite that, as Sherrell says, “we have actually helped Kaiser save money through our work.” On the contrary, Kaiser has responded not just by slashing workers’ rights, but also by containing workers’ collective power. Sherrell mentioned that the company has been building new initiatives with non-unionized health systems, like Risant Health, to outsource their work into these facilities where workers have even less bargaining power. She explains that Kaiser’s outsourcing also extends internationally to other places with poor labor protections like India. “We are fighting today for non-unionized workers too,” she adds.

A dozen people march a picket line with signs reading Patient Health not Corporate Wealth.
Source: National Union of Healthcare Workers via Facebook.

Sherrell and Del Rosario underscored that ultimately it points back to the larger issue of who has power—the workers or the corporations. They recognized that these problems are not contained within the health care industry, but as Loyd said, “it’s happening across the board in different industries.”

Loyd shared that her partner is a rank and file member of the Screen Writers Guild who was also out on the picket lines on the other side of town that day. Del Rosario, who cited the auto workers’ and actors’ strikes as inspiration, called for “a common cause” with other unions to understand that “corporations are like governments, keeping power to themselves over the people.” This solidarity, he says, will help different workers know that they can say: “We won’t be silenced.”

Workers are recognizing that this concentration of power among corporate elites points to how capitalism as a political and economic system shapes our material conditions. Del Rosario explains that we must link the issues discussed here today to what Marx described in his theory of alienation: “what Marx meant by alienation explains how we as workers cannot enjoy the fruits of our own labor. That’s what we are feeling here today—the effects of this alienation.”

Indeed, what struck me about the workers I met was a common urge to think and imagine big; their fight today as the organized working class does not just end with a better contract. Loyd said that the struggle for better labor conditions and rights for workers means more time and resources for workers to pursue education, to learn more about the field and beyond—to learn how workers themselves can build a better world. Del Rosario described his fight with other workers for better material conditions across different movements as a “spiritual revolution” as well.

These perspectives point to a core principle of the socialist movement: that working-class struggles are not just about “economic” or “workplace” demands separate from, as Friedrich Engels put it, all that relates to “the production and reproduction of real life.” It’s about seeing the working class, because of its social position, as the decisive and most effective force to fight for freedom and autonomy for all those in society in the most holistic sense.

Featured image credit: picryl; modified by Tempest.

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Promise Li View All

Promise Li is a socialist activist from Hong Kong and Los Angeles and a member of Tempest and Solidarity (US). He is active in international solidarity with movements from Hong Kong and China, tenant and anti-gentrification organizing in Chinatown, and rank-and-file graduate worker labor organizing.