Monday, March 5, 2012

From Ford to Kaiser Permanente: Chuck Columbus

August, Regan and Columbus
Tasty received some interesting information about a top executive at Kaiser Permanente who’s been working hand-in-hand with Dave Regan and John August to implement massive cuts to workers’ benefits. Here’s the scoop:

Chuck Columbus is Kaiser’s top human resources and labor relations official – aka, “Senior Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer.” More importantly, he’s the architect of Kaiser’s strategy to eliminate workers’ defined-benefit pension and slash their health benefits.

In 2009, Kaiser CEO George Halvorson recruited Columbus for precisely this purpose. Before joining Kaiser, Columbus spent 30 years at the Ford Motor Company and served as a Vice President of Human Resources. During his final years at Ford, the auto company instituted deep cuts to workers’ pay and benefits. In 2007, Ford eliminated its defined-benefit pension plan for new hires and forced them into a 401(k) plan. Ford also implemented a two-tiered wage system that pays new employees only half as much as regular employees -- $14 an hour instead of $28.

Last year, these huge cuts helped Ford make $20.2 billion in profits -- the company’s second highest profit ever, according to the New York Times.

Impressed by the benefit cuts at heavily unionized Ford, Halvorson recruited Columbus to implement a similar benefit-slashing scheme at Kaiser. Here’s how a Kaiser press release from 2010 describes his role:
Columbus... is credited with developing Kaiser Permanente's national labor relations strategy and managing the organization's collective bargaining during the first half of 2010. “Chuck Columbus has a great background and a level of experience that we will find very applicable to Kaiser Permanente,” said George Halvorson, chairman and chief executive officer of Kaiser Permanente...
What are Chuck’s plans for upcoming negotiations with the partnership unions, which begin tomorrow (March 6th)? Well, check out this excerpt from an email that Columbus sent to SEIU-UHW members exactly one month ago:
We must move toward a cost structure that doesn’t force our premiums up to a level that makes us less affordable, which in turn can lead to a loss of enrollment and cause us to have to shrink as an organization. This requires that we examine our costs, including our benefits. Going forward, we must have benefit expense levels that provide great benefits to our employees and yet are not at a level that makes it difficult to sustain our organization or, in the end, makes it difficult to preserve those great benefits for our employees.
Even though Columbus uses a kind of coded language, his message about Kaiser's plans for bargaining is very clear. 

So how did Regan and August respond? Did they fire off a sharply worded response to Columbus’s email, which -- after all -- was sent to tens of thousands of union members? Nope. Nada. In fact, SEIU -- through its wellness campaign -- is actively working with Kaiser to spread a false message of scarcity by implying that Kaiser can no longer afford employees' health insurance costs… even as Kaiser’s cumulative profits surge past $6.1 billion.