UPDATE: Kaiser Permanente meets with striking engineers and mediators
on October 21, 2021
As the strike of stationary and biomedical engineers stretched into a 36th day, the union and employer Kaiser Permanente engaged in mediation Friday that ended without an agreement.
The International Union of Operating Engineers Local 39 told members around 5:30 p.m. that the session had ended with little headway made. While the sides agreed to continue with the federal mediator, a new session has not yet been scheduled.
A day earlier, outside Kaiser Permanente headquarters in Oakland, striking hospital employees and supporters held signs that said: “Unfair to workers,” “Their fight is our fight!,” and “On strike against Kaiser.”
The hospital appeared to be running normally, with patients, nurses, and doctors walking in and out. But stationary engineer Mark Sutherland said that after five weeks without engineers on the job, it was “starting to be non-compliant on the different things that we take care of on a monthly, weekly basis here at the hospital.” As a stationary engineer, Sutherland’s job is to ensure that all machinery including electrical, plumbing, refrigeration, heating and air-conditioning systems work properly.
Local 39 engineers went on strike when their contract ended on Sept. 18 and there was no agreement with Kaiser Permanente. The union asked for a 5% raise in wages and Kaiser offered a 2% raise, which the union rejected.
Kaiser Permanente issued a statement Friday saying it was bargaining in good faith with the union and that “the only bad behavior in this negotiation has been by Local 39 activists who have blocked deliveries at our hospitals, disrupted patients and harassed staff.”
Sutherland said the union hasn’t kept truck drivers from making deliveries. However, many drivers have chosen not to cross Local 39’s picket line.
He also disputed Kaiser Permanente’s claim that union members have harassed staff, saying that many of the engineers have worked for years at the hospital and become friends with much of the staff.
“I mean for anything that we hear there, they support us. They’re behind us,” Sutherland said.
The Kaiser Permanente statement said Local 39’s engineers are among the highest paid in the county and that their retirement benefit is the most generous of any Kaiser Permanente employee union group.
For Local 39, higher wages is not just about financial stability but retention of engineers.
“We constantly lose people,” said lead biomedical engineer Dale McIntire. Because Kaiser pays its engineers the same wage across every region, he said, newly hired engineers in Oakland often don’t stay long, moving instead to markets where the housing is cheaper.
McIntire said he is constantly retraining people and that the engineering department is currently down seven people.
Sutherland noted that workers from various hospital departments depend on the engineers to make their jobs runs smoothly.
“If we’re not doing our job correctly, it falls down on the nurses not being able to do their job correctly, the doctors, the staff, everybody,” he said. “So, we’re hopeful that by next week something really gets resolved.”
In its statement, Kaiser Permanente also was hopeful about what would come from the latest meeting, saying, “We welcome the support of the mediator in negotiations to help reach an agreement.”
At Thursday’s picket, Local 39 was supported by Service Employees International Union-United Health Workers and the East Bay Democratic Socialists of America, about 30 people in all.
“I’m actually proud of this event because it’s indicative of where labor is going,” said Lala Gonzalez, SEIU contract specialist and shop steward.
The strike comes during what many on social media are calling “Striketober,” with workers at Kellogg’s, Nabisco, Frito Lay, John Deer and others striking for higher wages, and better working conditions and benefits.
Last week, 24,000 Kaiser Permanente health care workers in California and Oregon authorized a strike to demand that the company drop plans for a two-tiered wage and benefits system, raise wages by 4%, and commit to hiring more nurses. In Hawaii, 2,000 Kaiser Permanente workers represented by Unite Here! Local 5 authorized a strike Wednesday.
This story was updated to include Kaiser Permanente’s comments and the latest information on the mediation session.
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