Engineers strike Kaiser for wages and working conditions

By Sheri Williams

The International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE), Stationary Engineers Local 39 is on strike against Kaiser Permanente over wages and working conditions in an ongoing action that includes members across Northern California.

On Nov. 2, Local 39 members were joined by the Sacramento Central Labor Council and union members from throughout the region for a day of action at the Kaiser facility in Sacramento. Dozens turned out in support of the engineers, forming a picket line honored by other union employees at the facility.

“Now more than ever it’s critical that the family of Labor stand together to ensure that working conditions and wages are fair for every working person in Sacramento and in the United States,” said Fabrizio Sasso, executive director of the SCLC. “The pandemic has shown us too clearly the inequalities that exist in today’s workplaces, and we are here to say that working families matter and the unfairness must end.”

Engineers have been striking against Kaiser since September, when their contract expired without resolution from the employer. The Engineers are not alone in their dispute with the health care giant—other union employees including mental health care providers are also fighting Kaiser for better contracts and better patient care.

“As much as this is an issue for Local 39, it’s a much larger issue that Kaiser has turned its back on Labor,” said Stationary Engineers lead negotiator Shane Mortensen.

Mortensen said there are more than 700 IUOE union members on strike across 24 facilities. He said that though the union is open to bargaining, Kaiser has not met their basic asks regarding wages and conditions and no future bargaining sessions are scheduled.

Stationary Engineers are critical to the safety of patients and patient care, said Mortensen. They are charged with maintaining safety equipment and ensuring critical infrastructure is well-maintained and operational, performing daily maintenance and ongoing care of vital systems within the facilities.

Also represented by the union are Biomedical Engineers, who maintain critical medical equipment, including MRI machines, IV machines and X-Rays.

“We keep the lights on, and the machines running, and air circulating in the building; what we do is important,” Christina Anderson, a union member, told media recently.

Other union members stressed the critical nature of their work, and the risk of using scabs to replace them. Kaiser has said it is maintaining safe conditions at all its facilities by using workers from other regions in part.

“We will continue to bargain in good faith with Local 39 in the hope of reaching a final, mutually beneficial contract as soon as possible,” Kaiser said in an October statement about the strike.

But union workers cautioned that their specialized skills were hard to replace, and their work shouldn’t be left in the hands of those willing to cross a picket line.

“Something happens right now, there are no engineers in there. If you have a family member in there, wouldn’t you be worried and wonder if a bed needs to go down or a machine goes down? Who’s going to fix it? There’s nobody in there,” Local 39 engineer Cynthia Diaz told media last month.