Pharmacists and the Picket Line

Kaiser is trying to break a strike among its employees. It keeps upping the pay offer for pharmacists who cross the picket line.

On November 15th, 30,000 health care workers say they will strike against hospital, clinic and health insurance goliath Kaiser Permanente. This labor action is occurring in response to the firm’s decision to both cut wages for existing employees and pay new employees even less. We are in the middle of a massive upsurge in labor militancy, including among health care workers dealing with dominant firms, and this strike is one of the biggest actions so far.

So what is Kaiser doing to prepare? They are using a simple tactic that has been a standard approach to labor actions for 150 years. The firm is hiring replacement workers to take the place of those on strike. Here’s Molly Osberg at the New Republic:

In preparation for November 15, a staffing agency is already recruiting strike nurses in Southern California, who would be paid as much as $12,500 a week* to help Kaiser cut wages for new employees by as much as 36 percent and avoid giving its current workers more than a 1 percent raise. Kaiser has said it’s unwilling to negotiate on these numbers and that it’s taking these drastic measures on employee compensation in order to lower patients’ costs. But theoretically, based on the membership numbers provided by just one of the unions intending to strike and the listings pitched to nurses willing to cross a picket line, replacing 19,000 striking nurses could cost $237 million a week.

It’s not just nurses walking out, it’s also pharmacists, technicians, occupational therapists, optometrists, and so on. And that means a lot of replacement workers. How dominant firms deal with strikes is a key determinant of whether the current labor shortage temporarily boosts wages, or leads to lasting institutional change. John Deere, for instance, is threatening more offshoring if workers don’t end their current strike.

In this case, Kaiser can’t offshore work, because it’s a service industry. Instead, the firm must find temporary replacement workers for much of its workforce, including highly trained professionals like nurses and pharmacists. Will Kaiser be able to recruit enough of them?

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