100,000-Member Union Coalition ‘Strikes’ at Major Health Care Foes: Obesity and Chronic Disease

Whoever thinks that labor unions are stuck in the past clearly isn’t following the trajectory of the Coalition of Kaiser Permanente Unions. Our Coalition, which represents close to 100,000 workers at Kaiser Permanente medical centers, launched a new campaign this week that targets not a health care employer but a different type of foe: obesity and chronic disease. On Friday morning, more than 500 Coalition union members hit the streets of Hollywood with the message that we plan to use union organizing techniques to take aim at the causes of chronic disease. Our members talked to tourists, gave free blood pressure screenings at a senior center, held up signs that read “Health is a Union Issue,” and even danced to a Beyonce “Move Your Body” video in front of Hollywood’s famed Chinese Theater.

As far as we know, this is the first union campaign of its kind. But it makes complete sense that health care workers would take the issue of health care out of hospitals and medical centers and into communities. We know better than anyone that a wave of preventable chronic disease is threatening to overwhelm the nation’s health care system—we’re reminded of it every time we sit at the bargaining table across from a health care employer. And we think we can have a big impact on health care costs by reaching out into the community to challenge cheap junk food marketed to children, lack of physical activity, and lack of access to fresh fruit and vegetables, recreation, and safe routes for walking to school and work.  

Dave Regan, President of Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West:

It is our obligation to promote and protect the health of our communities, and health extends far beyond the walls of our hospitals and clinics. And a big part of this campaign is improving our own health.

To improve our own health, union members will organize mass walking campaigns, participate in Kaiser Permanente’s online health assessment tool which has been shown to improve health; and work in worker co-led unit based teams (there are 3,400 at Kaiser Permanente) to improve healthy eating and healthy work practices like walking meetings, open stairwells, and safe walking paths. Just a few days ago, one of the unions in our Coalition, OPEIU Local 30, spent half a day training its shop stewards about stress management, healthy eating and fitness.

If we are successful, we will save thousands of lives and hundreds of millions of dollars.

A few sobering facts explain our interest in taking on health as a union issue: about two-thirds of adults in the US are overweight or obese, and, according to a study just published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, only two percent of Americans follow the seven heart healthy measures recommended by the American Heart Association. Meanwhile, conditions such as diabetes and asthma are growing in children at alarming rates.

Our Unions also plan to work with Kaiser Permanente and other organizations to use a forthcoming report from the Institute of Medicine, and a four-part HBO series – both entitled “The Weight of the Nation” – to spark a long-term wave of change across the country. The series and IOM report both call attention to unprecedented obesity rates and the wave of related chronic illnesses.

While there are many challenges to making health care more affordable and accessible, health care workers have a unique role to play in creating an affordable path to better health through prevention and health education. And whoever thinks unions haven’t yet entered the 21st century need only take a look at this new campaign to understand that they are quite mistaken.