Healthcare Workers Vote to OK Strike

June 11, 2013 Updated Jun 11, 2013 at 6:07 PM EDT

By Allen Leight

June 11, 2013 Updated Jun 11, 2013 at 6:07 PM EDT

BUFFALO, NY (WKBW) - Thousands of Kaleida healthcare workers will be casting their ballots through Wednesday over whether to authorize a work stoppage.

"When they see the overwhelming numbers that we believe we are going to get for the strike vote, that will be our membership's chance to tell Kaleida, 'we're serious. Get back to the bargaining table, give us a fair contract,'" said Cori Gambini, President of CWA Local 1168, one of the three unions representing the 7,000 workers.

Kaleida and the unions have been working for months to hammer out a new deal, and a work stoppage would disrupt operations at three major area hospitals, including Buffalo General, Women and Children's Hospital, and Millard Fillmore Suburban.

Kaleida administrators say the two side are in agreement on about 90-percent of the deal, but some major sticking points remain.

"We've put an awful lot on the table. Now it may not be as much as the unions want but it's more than we've made all of 2012," said Michael P. Hughes, Vice President of Kaleida Health.

Hughes says Kaleida has offered $20 million in increases in their proposal, while the union offer sheet calls for $90 million in increases, leaving a $70 million dollar gap that must be met before the current contract expires on June 21.

"We just can't agree to that type of financial request. It would put us out of business within a year," added Hughes.

Union leaders disagree and say after making concessions in the last negotiations, members just want a fair contract.

"They want at least a cost of living raise. We're not asking for a lot. We have responsible proposals on the table. We would never do anything to put Kaleida out of business," said Gambini.

The other major sticking point is healthcare.

Kaleida wants its workers to jump to a plan that encourages the use of Kaleida facilities. And while premiums would be lower, the union says there are concerns about whether the network is large enough to cover all the workers and their families and over possible increases in out-of-pocket expenses.

Hughes says those issues have been addressed.

If a strike were to happen, what would effect be on the health care community?

Many doctors who use Kaleida facilities did not want to appear on camera, but expressed concerns about the quality and quantity of care should workers walk.

Kaleida is not talking about how the contingency plan works or what it would look like, saying it is speculative to do so.

V.P. of Kaleida Health Michael P. Hughes issued the following statement Tuesday evening about the strike vote:

"A strike authorization vote is a frequently utilized tactic by unions in negotiations. It allows (but does not require), via their by-laws and constitutions, the union bargaining committee to call a strike after the contract expires, if they deem a work stoppage is necessary.

In the event a strike vote is authorized by the membership, the union may then issue Kaleida Health management a notice of intent to strike in 10 days. Therefore, no job action can occur until after June 21, 2013.

Any discussion about a strike at this point is extremely premature.

Management and labor are scheduled to resume bargaining on June 13, 2013."

The strike authorization voting ends Wednesday at 9 p.m. The two sides meet again on Thursday with a federal mediator.