SEATTLE — After 18 months of difficult negotiations, more than 2,200 members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) staged a five-day strike of Group Health Cooperative facilities in western Washington State Aug. 23-27 over health benefits.

SEIU Local 1199NW represents nurses, social workers, janitors, master’s level psychotherapists, and some cafeteria employees for Washington State’s largest HMO.

Group Health operates a dozen medical facilities in the area, including a hospital in the suburbs east of Seattle, although this limited action strike only affected non-emergency facilities and, as such, excluded the hospital. The HMO has 350,000 members and over 11,000 employees in all of Washington State and parts of Idaho.

In its latest offer the non-profit company asked these unionized health care workers to accept a pay cut that ranges as high as 3 percent depending on a union family’s health care needs. The company has offered a small wage increase while demanding that union workers pay 1 percent of their salary for health care benefits (3 percent for a family), as well as demanding a tripling of the deductible currently paid under their health care plan.

The union has accused the company of trying to destroy the union through ridiculous offers, bad faith bargaining, lying to the employees and public, and an unwillingness to honestly participate in federally mediated contract talks. An analysis of data provided by SEIU Local 1199NW shows that many workers stand to lose thousands of dollars in net pay per year under the latest contract offer.

According to the company, these takebacks are necessary to “keep health care costs down for members” and they are “standard in the industry.” In the past Group Health has been known for its quality health care benefits for employees and this was one reason why many of the striking employees originally started working for the company.

The claims by management have the ring of “everyone else is lowering their health care benefits so we can too.” This claim rings hollow to union members who note that the company is now making money and has no need to reduce the amount they pay union health care workers. Reports vary, but the non-profit Group Health reportedly made the equivalent of $156 to $187.8 million in profits (technically, “operating margin”) in 2003. The company claims to be spending $53 million on medical benefits now.

The union is currently assessing its position. The hope is that the company will be forced back to the bargaining table with the knowledge that a full-fledged strike would bring operations to a halt. The union claims 90 percent of the membership participated in the walkout.

Federal law requires a 10-day warning before health care workers can strike. If a larger strike were necessary such an action would require that 10-day notice. The union hopes to avoid any larger action so as to minimize the impact of a full-fledged strike upon patients.

As of press time no new negotiations had been announced, although it is possible negotiations have or will take place secretly. Local 1199NW has announced their intention to call for outside help to re-establish a working relationship between themselves and the company, and they are presently considering a “Labor Management Partnership” model used by the unions and management at Kaiser Permanente.

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