After 40 Days, Kaiser Stationary Engineers Still Striking

Zack Haber
5 min readOct 28, 2021
Striking Kaiser workers in the IUOE Stationary Engineer Local 39 union stand next to the Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Oakland on October 21 with support from other Kaiser workers in the SEIU-UHW and OPEIU 29. Photo by Zack Haber.

Union workers in IUOE Stationary Engineers Local 39 have been picketing 24/7 near Kaiser Permanente’s Oakland Medical Center since September 18, the day after their contract with the healthcare company ran out. It’s one of the 24 pickets that include about 750 engineers at Kaiser facilities across Northern California.

“The payment package increase that they gave us was less than half of [the increase] everybody else is getting right now,” said Mark Sutherland, a stationary engineer on the picket line. “It was kind of a slap in the face.”

Local 39 stationary engineers’ work involves maintaining the Kaiser buildings and their medical equipment like ventilators and heart monitors. It’s a job that requires four years of specialized training, continued night classes during the first few years of employment, and onsite training. Kaiser’s proposed payment package, they say, would make them the lowest paid stationary engineers working in any hospital in the Bay Area. They want a payment package that is similar to what stationary engineers at other nearby hospitals receive.

Kaiser Permanente’s media team did not directly answer when asked how their proposed payment package for Local 39 stationary engineers compared to other such workers in the Bay Area, but instead compared their package to elsewhere in the nation.

“The engineers represented by Local 39 are among the highest paid in their profession in the country, earning total compensation (wages, benefits, and retirement) of more than $180,000 a year,” they wrote in an email. “We are offering a reasonable wage increase, and no takeaway, but the union is demanding more.”

Sam Mitchell is a Local 39 member who has worked at Kaiser in Oakland for decades and is speaking under a pseudonym as he fears retaliation from the company. He said Kaiser’s payment package claim of $180,000 “skews the image of what we’re making by emphasizing something that really isn’t going directly to the employee.” He said Kaiser stationary engineers make, on average, around $55 an hour, and that much of the company’s quoted yearly payment figure comes from an expensive Kaiser health care plan that workers receive but that the company charges itself for.

Sutherland said he thinks the 2% payment package increase that Kaiser is offering doesn’t keep up with the rising cost of living. By comparison, the Social Security Administration recently stated it is offering a 5.9% benefits increase to its recipients for a cost of living adjustment in 2022. Sutherland also said he wants skilled engineers to gain experience and stay at Kaiser. He fears if Kaiser’s payment pack remains lower than other hospitals, it could become “a stepping stone for engineers who seek higher payment elsewhere.”

Mitchell claims being on strike has been difficult as he and his co-workers have been picketing 50 hours a week.

“My feet are killing me,” he said. “I’ve never stood this long on concrete and it’s draining. We don’t feel Kaiser cares about us.”

He and other Local 39 members are currently not getting paid by Kaiser. They’re receiving funds, much lower than their regular wages, from a strike account they had paid into in the past. Some other unions in Kaiser have shown Local 39 support. On October 21, SEIU-UHW and OPEIU Local 29 members joined them on the picket line during their lunch breaks or time off.

“All the unions here are like a big Jenga puzzle,” said Fay Eastman, a Patient Care Tech at Kaiser Oakland and SEIU-UHW member. “If you pull a piece out, it’s eventually all going to fall apart. That’s why we all stick together during our contract negotiations.”

Both Local 39 members and Kaiser expressed frustration about how they say the other side is acting. Local 39 has filed Unfair Labor Practice complaints to the National Labor Relations Board. One complaint was related to Kaiser taking two weeks after the strike started to have a meeting to negotiate the contract.

Kaiser claims it has bargained in good faith and claims “Local 39 activists” are the problem.

“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,” wrote Kaiser’s media in an email.

Kaiser’s media team accused “union activists” at some locations of vandalism, disturbing patients with “loud and disruptive horns and sirens,” and pulling fire alarms. They didn’t specify which locations and also noted that they don’t believe these actions were supported by the majority of the strikers.

Mitchell noted that since the picket is outside the building, away from fire alarms, he doesn’t believe union members pulled any alarm. Mitchell disagreed with Kaiser’s accusations, and claims the union has not committed vandalism or discouraged patients from seeking medical care or nurses and doctors from doing their jobs. The picket has been located far away from the patient entrance. He described the picket as a “barrier of integrity” that forces replacement engineers to make a moral choice about whether or not to cross the line. As for deliveries, he said while some deliverers might have voluntarily used an entrance away from their picket to deliver goods to Kaiser, it was never the strikers’ intention to block deliveries. While he admits people have been upset and the picket has gotten rowdy, he also claims they have gotten along well with other Kaiser workers, who have delivered water to engineers.

Mitchell also said two engineers have gotten struck by semi-trucks on the picket line who were delivering goods to Kaiser, and that one engineer was knocked out while another had to see a chiropractor. When asked if semi-trucks delivering to Kaiser had struck strikers in Oakland, Kaiser’s media team said “No such incidents have been substantiated at Oakland Medical Center.”

To back up his claim, Mitchell sent photos to this writer that appear to show a striker near Kaiser Oakland holding a sign, while laying flat on his back on the sidewalk near a pharmaceutical distribution company’s semi-truck. Another photo showed Oakland Fire Department workers attending to the same striker as he lay on a gurney wearing a neck brace. When contacted, the striker who was allegedly struck by the semi-truck said that due to pending litigation related to the matter, his lawyer advised him not to talk or name himself in the press about the incident. In an email, Oakland Fire Department spokesperson Michael Hunt, wrote that the department picked up a person in an ambulance who was struck by a truck near Kaiser early on October 15, the same day and time that Mitchell claimed the striker was knocked out.

Local 39 members and Kaiser say they want to reach an agreement soon. Both sides have agreed to allow a federal mediator join in the bargaining process in order to expedite the process.

“We hope to reach an agreement soon and look forward to welcoming our engineers back,” Kaiser’s media team wrote.

“All of us here not working,” said Sutherland, on the picket line, “we miss our jobs. We miss our co-workers. The sooner the better for us.”

Notes: A similar version of this story will also be published soon by the Post News Group. This article was updated on November 1 to include information from the Oakland Fire Department.

--

--