Q&A: Kaiser Permanente nurse discusses canceled strike and new agreement reached with employer

Johanna Noriega is an RN at Kaiser Permanente Fontana Medical Center. She’s also an officer at the United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals (UNAC/UHCP), and one of the 21,000 members of the UNAC/UHCP that planned to strike against Kaiser on Nov. 15 throughout Southern California.

 

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In this Q&A, Noriega discusses the purpose of the strike, as well as the tentative deal reached by Kaiser and the union that resulted in the cancellation of their Nov. 15 strike. The agreement includes wage increases, health benefits, retirement benefits, new safe staffing and workload language, and opportunities for career growth.

Noriega emphasized Kaiser nurses’ adamant opposition to the two-tiered wage system proposed by Kaiser that would maintain wages for current employees, but cut the wages and benefits of future employees. 

Soraya Marashi: Why were the nurses striking?

Johanna Noriega: “Kaiser Permanente has been resistant in negotiations this year. And they, from the onset, started to try to impose a two-tiered wage system on us, and so we really felt that Kaiser was not stepping up and giving us a fair contract. But yet, they were trying to impose this two-tiered wage system, and that was an absolute no-go for the nurses. We knew that this would cause division among the staff, and we knew that we had to stand up for what our union leaders have won for us in the past … and that we had to protect our future nurses.

I was personally involved because I’m a union leader at an affiliate level, and so I knew that I supported what our state union leaders’ cause was–to protect our union members. I also knew that this is a huge labor movement, and that we needed to support one another in solidarity to get what we deserve, and to oppose the two-tiered wage system.”

SM: Why do you feel that it’s important to actually go out and advocate for these issues?

JN: “… Local nurses felt that we were being greedy, that the [Kaiser] nurses were just fighting for raises. I said, ‘I’m sorry, it’s bigger than that.’ And the raises are actually not what we’re fighting about. What we’re more concerned about is the imposition of this two-tiered wage system, and because we know what Kaiser does tends to trickle throughout health care across the country … this potentially will affect [other nurses] too in [other hospitals]. I know that in the union, we fight for what is fair, and we advocate for that fairness — equal pay for equal work.” 

SM: What do nurses need right now that they’re not getting?

JN: “The one thing that we always talk about is support. And during these negotiations, [UNAC/UHCP’s] complaint was to invest in patient care. And that is exactly what we wanted. The one thing that we don’t get enough of is … staff, ancillary support, and time. We know that we need all those things to provide the kind of quality care that nurses intend to provide, and so during these negotiations, that is something our union members took to the table and they were asking for. 

So that way, we can give that true, genuine care that we were all taught in nursing school to provide–not just the physical, but the emotional–so, these patients end up having good outcomes. The problem is that the two-tiered system would divide the staff, and it would impact the support that we need, and it wouldn’t allow us to improve our outcomes for patient safety and their access.”

SM: A tentative agreement has been made between Kaiser and the Alliance unions. What are your feelings about this? Do you think it’s enough?

JN: “Our executive director … says that we deserve more. And it’s true. We always deserve more. How do you place a dollar amount or just an amount period on the care that we provide to those who need it? But in reality … I’m very happy with the outcome of the tentative agreement. I think our union leaders made a good decision, and we all supported in solidarity to end up where we’re at. I think it’s going to be a good outcome for our patients, and I believe that we are in a good place right now. 

And we didn’t get to the point where we compromised our partnership with Kaiser Permanente by going on the strike lines … To ensure that good care, I think sustaining that partnership is key. And so [our ask is that] the leadership at a local level and across the health care systems continue to support us as individuals who are providing that care and not just look at us as a business entity.”

SM: Why are you passionate about what you do? 

JN: “As a nurse, it’s truly a calling. You don’t get into this field for the simple fact of the profession … Providing care to someone, it truly goes back to it’s better to give than to receive. And so I think that I am invigorated by caring for other humans. And there’s nothing more rewarding than having patients say ‘Thank you,’ ‘You really helped me’ … or just a simple ‘I’m no longer scared because you helped me.’ So having those moments are super fulfilling.

Our union was founded on the premise of providing safe and good patient care. I think that’s what’s so awesome about being part of UNAC/UHCP, is knowing that we’re a professional organization that is always seeking to help. And I just find so much joy in being able to be a voice for so many, and to make a positive impact in this world … I’m just so happy that we’re continuing to get good outcomes for the masses.”

SM: Now that you’ve reached a tentative agreement, how do you plan to continue advocating for these issues in the future?

JN: “The key is to make sure that we follow up … The number one thing is … collaborating with the employer to make sure that we remain in partnership and that we adhere to the negotiations that we came together on. And so there’s accountability on both ends. As union leaders, we want to make sure that we are keeping everyone informed and that we stay on top of the expectation from us. And then on the other side is that management is doing the same. And we come together.” 

This interview was edited for clarity and length.