Thousands of Kaiser Permanente Staff Join Picket Line in Solidarity With Striking Engineers

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People wearing purple cross a street carrying protest signs, one reads, "heroes treated like zeroes."
Kaiser health care workers represented by health care union SEIU-UHW went on a 24-hour sympathy strike Thursday to show support for Kaiser's operating engineers, who have been on strike for two months as they push for better wages. (Kaushikee Nayudu/KQED)

Scores of Kaiser Permanente unionized employees walked off the job Thursday in solidarity with hundreds of company engineers who have been on strike for two months over alleged unfair labor practices and pay disparities, amid stalled contract negotiations.

Unions representing mental health professionals, optometrists, pharmacists and other Kaiser staffers said an estimated 40,000 of its members at locations across Northern California were expected to join the picket line Thursday as part of the "sympathy strike," with Kaiser nurses planning to strike Friday.

“The engineers are a vital part of the facility,” said Ron Cook, a patient mobility coach, who joined the picket line in front of Kaiser’s Redwood City facility, where he works. "When the power goes out and anything happens with lifesaving equipment, it’s the engineers that fix it."

"We feel like an injury to one union is an injury to all unions," added Cook, a member of the SEIU-United Healthcare Workers West.

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The action comes just days after Kaiser reached a last-minute tentative agreement with two unions representing pharmacists and other health care workers, narrowly averting a walkout among thousands of additional employees.

"They have been out fighting for their contract for two months. We believe enough is enough," said Lisa Van Zevern, a Kaiser contract specialist in Redwood City. "We've been down this road, we know what it's like and we are out here supporting our brothers and sisters in labor. It's not right, you know, to go without pay for two months, when they're just asking for a decent living wage."

Jeff Florence, a Kaiser stationary engineer in Sacramento, who usually keeps the X-ray machines and other equipment running, is among the more than 600 technicians at 24 locations across Northern California who have been on the picket line for more than 60 days.

"We staff at 24-7, through the rain, through the cold," he said. "It’s been a fairly grueling experience, trying to get through the day-to-day out here, living without a paycheck from Kaiser."

The International Union of Operating Engineers, Local 39 contend their members' pay isn't enough to afford the region's high cost of living, and argue they are being paid at the same rate as their counterparts in less expensive locales.

Tent with sign reading "Days on Strike: 62" and "Fire CEO Greg Adams" and "I Support Local 39," the union representing Kaiser's stationery engineers.
Kaiser engineers have been picketing daily across Northern California for 62 days. Today, they were joined by thousands of Kaiser health care workers represented by other unions, as part of a massive sympathy strike. (Kaushikee Nayudu/KQED)

"Kaiser wants to compare us to engineers in Portland [in Oregon] or Los Angeles," said Shane Mortensen, the union's chief negotiator, arguing the company is not negotiating in good faith and has refused to return to the bargaining table for nearly a month. "It's inappropriate to use those cities to try to compare us. Nobody's commuting from Portland to San Francisco to work every day. These economics meet the area's needs, and what we're asking for is the same wages and benefits that engineers make at other hospitals within [this] area."

In response, Kaiser officials said the engineers' union is asking for "unreasonable increases" that it simply can't accommodate.

"We are offering Local 39 employees wages that are similar to our other employees' and that, on top of Local 39's generous medical and the richest retirement benefits, will keep our engineers among the best compensated in their profession, at an average of more than $180,000 in total wages and benefits," Kaiser said in a recent statement.

The company also said it understands and respects union solidarity, but noted that the strike will certainly not bring the two parties closer to an agreement.

In anticipation of the strike, the company released a message to its customers about potential impacts for care in its pharmacy, lab and radiology departments, optical services, emergency care and routine care.

"In the event of a strike, we may have to reschedule some elective surgeries, nonurgent appointments, or change your appointment to a phone or video visit," Kaiser wrote in an email message to customers. "We are very sorry for any disruption members may experience as we take steps to ensure that we continue to provide high-quality, safe care during this union strike."

In a separate statement, Kaiser also said it had requested stroke and severe heart attack treatment be diverted on Thursday and Friday to local emergency service providers outside of its network. "These mutual agreements were made out of an abundance of caution to ensure that patients in need of specialized Emergency Department care during this work stoppage all receive the excellent and timely care they deserve."

KQED's Kaushikee Nayudu and Sara Hossaini contributed to this report, with additional reporting from Bay City News.

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