Sacramento Business Journal: Kaiser mental health workers petition for election

NewsJune 3, 2010

By Kathy Robertson

A majority of 1,300 Northern California mental health professionals at Kaiser Permanente have signed a petition calling for a union election that would allow them to change their union representation from Service Employees International Union-United Health Care Workers (UHW) to a rival started by former SEIU leaders.

June 3 marks the beginning of a 30-day open window when Kaiser employees have a right to change unions, leaders at the National Union of Healthcare Workers say.

But there is a legal dispute over the timing of the election; Kaiser and UHW contend workers can’t vote until June 2011. The Oakland regional office of the National Labor Relations Board told the Business Journal last week there’s a 90- to 120-day window for union elections before the current contract expires Sept. 30.

Members of Kaiser’s Integrated Behavioral Health Services unit, which includes 143 workers in the Sacramento region, plan to file their petition on Thursday, Day One of what they consider the open window.

Almost 2,300 Southern California Kaiser workers —including about 900 psychiatric social workers — already switched to NUHW following a lopsided vote in favor of the rival union in January.

“We’re thrilled for the chance to join the rest of Kaiser’s mental health professionals in a member-run union that will help us improve care for our patients and clients,” Emily Ryan, a psychiatric social worker at Kaiser Folsom, said in a press release.

Over the next month, three more groups of Kaiser employees plan to petition to join NUHW: Northern California healthcare professionals, Northern California optical and lab workers and a statewide unit of about 43,000 service and tech workers. These units include more than 4,000 Kaiser workers in the Sacramento region.

Kaiser reached a tentative agreement early Friday with its coalition of 32 labor unions — including UHW — on a new, two-year national agreement. The union represents almost half of the 96,000 members covered by the national coalition.

The tentative agreement is expected to be ratified this summer. The open period to file for an election holds whether or not a new contract is ratified, according to Mike Leong, assistant regional director in the Oakland office of the NLRB.

Not all Kaiser mental health workers workers are prepared to jump.

Dr. Therese Fleming, a licensed clinical psychologist and contract specialist for the behavioral health services unit in Northern California, doesn’t want to give up the 18 percent raise she helped negotiate into the national agreement.

If the tentative agreement is ratified, most workers will get a 9 percent raise over the life of the contract, including a 3 percent raise in October 2012 if a new contract is not signed.

Psychologists get an extra 9 percent over the life of the contract.

“I don’t want to lose that,” Fleming said.

Southern California workers that bolted from UHW in January have not begun bargaining a new contract and they didn’t get the 2 percent raise their UHW peers got in April, she added.

“I helped negotiate a good agreement in this terrible, horrible economy,” Fleming said. “We had the strength of coalition and it was a hard road to hoe.”

Source: Sacramento Business Journal