Unions strike with engineers

By Sheri Williams

Thousands of union members took to the picket lines last month in a solidarity strike with Stationary Engineers Local 39, which represents about 700 structural and biomedical engineers at Kaiser Permanente facilities throughout Northern California.

Local 39 has been on strike against Kaiser since September 17. These critical employees are essential to keeping hospitals running safely. Their work includes repairing and maintaining medical equipment, as well as the hospital itself, including all the electrical, plumbing, refrigeration, and heating and air-conditioning systems across the medical centers.

Members of Local 39 have now been walking the picket line nearly three months as Kaiser routinely disrespects these critical hospital workers by not responding to many of their proposals, according to a press release.

“As the fight drags on, tens of thousands of our union siblings at 21 Kaiser hospitals have joined in sympathy strikes, including SEIU UHW, IFPTE Local 20, Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 29, the California Nurses Association (CNA), and the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW),” union members announced.

Mark Sutherland, a Local 39 member, told media he believes the strike is about more than just his union.

“I truly believe they’re just trying to tear the union apart,” Sutherland said to press. “I believe that they’re really trying to make an example of Local 39 to send a message to the other unions that if you stand up to the 800-pound gorilla, we’ll tear you limb from limb.”

A statement from SEIU 1021 said, “COVID-19 has laid bare what most union members across the workforce already knew: Large corporations (even so-called nonprofits like Kaiser, which brought in $6.4 billion in income in 2020, and public employers like cities and counties) will not hesitate to put their bottom line ahead of the health, safety, and well-being of their frontline workers. For too long, we’ve seen budgets balanced on the backs of the frontline workers while revenue soars, and a select few at the top continue to enjoy lavish benefits and compensation.”

“The courageous sympathy strikes by over 40,000 union members at Kaiser in support of Local 39 members serves as a powerful reminder of what solidarity is all about—as working people, we all share common goals and aspirations. When we set aside our small differences and work together towards creating a better world for ourselves and our loved ones, there’s so much we can accomplish,” said Jennifer Esteen, SEIU 1021 VP of Organizing.

Along with SEIU, union nurses from the California Nurses Association (CNA) also participated in the solidarity strike.

“An injury to one of us is an injury to all of us, so nurses will be standing in solidarity with our engineer colleagues as they go on strike this month,” said CNA President Cathy Kennedy, a registered nurse at Kaiser Permanente in Roseville, Calif. “It’s so important for working people to stand together, and we hope that with the nurses by their side, Kaiser engineers will win meaningful change for working people, and for safe patient care conditions.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Kaiser Permanente has made $13 billion in profits. However, rather than spend that money on increasing core staffing, Kaiser has proposed to float engineers among facilities, the nurses pointed out in a statement.

“Nurses know the devastating impact that short staffing has on our community’s health and well-being,” said Kennedy. “We also know that in order to provide the safe patient care our communities need and deserve, we must be able to count on our coworkers and they must be able to count on us. So we are standing with the Kaiser engineers in their righteous fight for a safe and just workplace.”