Roughly 750 Kaiser Permanente workers in Northern California responsible for maintaining key medical and other facility equipment have walked off the job, demanding higher pay and better working conditions.
The workers, represented by the International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 39, claim they are being underpaid in comparison to similar work in the region. Negotiations broke down after their contract expired Sept. 17, with Kaiser unwilling to satisfy requested wage increases. A group of 30 or more sign-waving workers gathered in front of the Kaiser Medical Center in Redwood City Friday morning to pressure the employer to meet demands.
“We don’t want to be out here any more than Kaiser wants us out here,” Local 39 Business Manager Bart Florence said. “But unfortunately, Kaiser has decided they’re not going to pay the prevailing wages.”
The operating engineers maintain things like IV pumps, medical gas systems, X-ray machines, sterilization equipment, fire and life safety systems, emergency generators and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems.
The strike lines are up at nearly all Kaiser Northern California medical centers but not the clinics, according to Julie Lind, executive secretary/treasurer of the San Mateo Labor Council. Local 39 represents 18,000 workers across northern California and northern Nevada.
In a statement, Kaiser indicated it is seeking no takeaways, and are offering wage increases and bonuses that would provide employees with an average of $3,600 more each year. Kaiser operating engineers earn $120,000 a year on average across Northern California, more than similar engineers in Los Angeles, Seattle, Boston and New York, who earn less than $100,000, according to the statement.
“In addition to earning market-competitive wages, our operating engineers enjoy generous retirement benefits with both a 401(k) and a pension. The total value of these benefits and wages exceeds $180,000 per year,” the statement reads.
But according to Florence, that’s not a fair comparison.
“That’s not Northern California,” Florence said. “With the cost of living what it is here, they want to make it out like we already make too much money, which you can’t make too much money in Northern California and try and live here.”
Local 39 district representative and Chief Negotiator Shane Mortensen said the union is only looking for wages and working conditions on par with those at Oracle, Genentech and Sequoia Hospital, among other local employers.
The most recent negotiations took place Sept. 19, with Kaiser unwilling to budge from its initial proposal, Mortensen said. Though negotiations began in July, Kaiser waited until just a day before the contract expired to introduce a take-it-or-leave-it proposal, Mortensen said. The strike was authorized the next day, Sept. 18.
It’s unclear what lies ahead for negotiations, but according to Florence, Local 39 is “in this for the long haul.”
Kaiser indicated it “will continue to bargain in good faith with Local 39 in the hope of reaching a final, mutually beneficial contract as soon as possible.”
The provider emphasized its medical offices and buildings are open and operating as usual because of “contingency plans in place that allow us to continue to provide high-quality care and services to our members and patients without interruption.”
Kaiser is currently contending with another potential strike affecting its California workforce, with The United Nurses Associations of California/Union of Health Care Professionals, which represents 24,000 workers, having authorized a member vote to strike earlier this week after negotiations similarly hit a stalemate.
(650) 344-5200, ext. 105
Note to readers: This story has been changed as Kaiser updated its statement from the total value of these benefits and wages exceeds $145,000 per year to the total value of these benefits and wages exceeds $180,000 per year.