By Jeff Manning

The Oregonian

Tensions are rising in three major labor disputes that involve about 29,000 Northwest workers.

Strikes loom at Oregon’s public universities, many of the region’s major grocers and one of its largest health care operations. They come at a time of heightened pressure from labor for a bigger piece of the earnings pie. Organized labor’s higher profile is reflected in the United Auto Workers strike against General Motors, which put 48,000 auto workers on the picket line on Monday.

Kaiser Permanente faces a potentially bigger problem. About 80,000 employees, 4,500 in Oregon and Southwest Washington, voted to strike earlier this week. A seven-day strike could begin as early as Oct. 14. It would be the biggest strike in the nation since the Teamsters walked out of UPS two decades ago.

The potential strikers are members of the Service Employees International Union, which includes optometrists, respiratory and X-ray technicians, licensed vocational nurses, certified nursing assistants, surgical technicians, housekeepers and others.

Bernard Tyson, Kaiser CEO and chair, said the union announced the possibility of a strike while negotiators from both sides were at the bargaining table, which he called an “overt effort to gain leverage.”

Kaiser management says it pays employees more than market averages. The company is offering annual pay increases of 3% across the board beginning in 2019, and each year through 2022.

SEIU spokeswoman Rae Dunnaville accused Kaiser of demanding its workers sacrifice while it posts record financial gains and its executives enjoy hefty raises.

“It’s really concerning that this nonprofit system is making such huge profits but asks its workers to do more with less,” Dunnaville said.

Negotiations seem stalled between 20,000 grocery workers represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555 and management of most major local chains. Another bargaining session is scheduled for Sept. 26 and 27.

Workers have canceled all existing contracts, which paves the way for a strike at Fred Meyer, Safeway and several other dominant grocery chains in Oregon and Washington.

Workers have accused Fred Meyer of calling individual workers into closed door meetings and browbeating them about the labor dispute, which they say is a violation of federal labor law. In response, union officials promise to stage some sort of unspecified action Sunday.

Fred Meyer spokesman Jeffery Temple said those meetings didn’t happen. “We don’t tolerate any coercion,” he said.

Temple did acknowledge that Fred Meyer has posted job openings for potential replacement employees.

“Our goal is to avoid a strike and reach a fair solution,” he said. But the chain also has to be prepared to continue to operate if the strike does happen. “People still need to eat.”

Meanwhile, 4,500 Oregon higher education workers voted to strike on Sept. 16 and 17. The workers could walk out on Sept. 30.

They include financial aid, admissions and other office employees as well as groundskeepers, janitors and food service workers. All of them work at one of the seven public universities in Oregon.

“We were surprised they didn’t accept our latest offer,” said management spokeswoman Di Saunders.

Management is offering the employees a 13.5% raise over two years.

That’s slightly better than the last contract, Saunders said.

Union officials said the pay hike is insufficient to make up for years of pay packages that failed to cover cost-of-living increases.

A strike was averted in at least one of Oregon’s labor disputes.

On Sept. 6, 400 workers at McKenzie-Willamette Medical Center in Springfield overwhelmingly approved a new contract that will give them 3%-a-year raises, a cap on workers’ share of health care premiums and new recognition of “past experience.”

Aaron Green, a certified nursing assistant and member of the union negotiating team, said he could get a 9% a year pay hike thanks to the broadened definition of past experience.

“It was all very tiring and taxing,” Green said. “But it was for a good cause.”

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