Update Dec. 22, 10:45 a.m.: While negotiations continue, the 650 Kaiser Permanente engineers that are represented by their union, Local 39, have returned to work and will now receive pay. In a statement that has not yet been released to the public, Kaiser writes that they are welcoming them back and “have engaged with a federal mediator to help facilitate bargaining,” though no negotiation has been scheduled yet.
Original Post: When the engineers for Kaiser Permanente’s Redwood City branch started their strike at 7 a.m. on Sept.18, the weather was warm, and the group was rested and eager for redemption. Now, in the middle of December, the temperature at night has dropped to 40 degrees Fahrenheit and disappointment has set in as the holiday season begins with no successful end to negotiations.
Now, they are setting up insulation in their strike tent to prepare for the cold, rainy week ahead and have decorated the outside with a wreath and decorations for the holiday.
According to Oscar Carcamo, a Biomedical Engineer and strike captain, under the engineers’ new contract they would make around $5 an hour less than other engineers in the area. They’re requesting a 5% raise and have rejected Kaiser’s offer of a 2% raise.
“Kaiser has failed to bargain in good faith, we would be underpaid from all of the other Local 39 contracts, hospitals and facilities within the area,” says Carcamo.
“During the pandemic we put ourselves out there and this is what we get for all of the hard work that we did, being put on the strike line with other engineers across Northern California like we’re just worthless,” he says. “We were heroes and now we’re zeros to them.”
Local 39, a union for stationary engineers, represents the 600 engineers employed by Kaiser Permanente. Engineers are on strike at their respective Kaiser locations all throughout Northern California. They are the only group of employees that Kaiser has not reached a deal with before the strike began.
On Nov. 13, Kaiser reached a deal with the Alliance of Health Care Unions, which covered nearly 50,000 healthcare employees in 22 local unions. Two days later, a second agreement was made with The Guild for Professional Pharmacists, which represents 2,100 pharmacists. In both cases, the agreements averted strikes that were days away from starting.
Over the past 88 days, strike captains Carcamo and Manny Moreno have led the effort. A tight-knit community of 19 men, many of them have worked at the Kaiser Permanente Redwood City Medical Center for over a decade.
Rick Ruiz, a CT/MRI engineer has been working at Kaiser since 1986. He was set to retire in the spring.
“I loved working here for decades,” says Ruiz. “But the relationship between Kaiser and our union has become more combative.”
Now, they stand outside of that same building with signs that read “We want fair wages” and “Fire CEO Greg Adams.”
Each morning, they wipe a whiteboard clean to write the number of days that they have been on strike for, a stark reminder of their uphill battle.
“At first, we thought it was going to go kind of fast. It hasn’t gone fast. We’ve been out here struggling day and night. This is a 24/7 strike,” says Daniel Bahamondes, who has been an x-ray biomedical engineer for the last 12 years.
The group must always have at least one person at the strike location, or their efforts can be shut down by Kaiser. This is monitored by a medical center security guard who stands outside, adding to the tense relationship between parties.
Time is not all that has been lost. The engineers have lost all their paychecks since mid- September.
The strike has negatively impacted Kaiser as well. Engineers are essential to the operations of the medical buildings. Biomedical engineers maintain the medical equipment throughout the hospitals and cancer treatment centers, such as IV pumps and ventilators. Stationary engineers maintain the facilities, like the plumbing and electric.
With the new coronavirus threat of the Omicron variant looming, their job duties may become even more urgent. More patients in hospitals requires an increased use of the equipment that they oversee. After a deal is reached, the engineers are ready to get to work.
“All we’re looking for is to get this done and start fixing the building and the systems,” says Bahamondes.
However, there has been little progress in reaching a deal.
In a statement, Kaiser Permanente said “our proposals will keep our engineers among the best paid in their profession. The union’s demands will make it harder to keep health care affordable … across Kaiser Permanente in Northern California, our operating engineers earn an average of $120,000 a year.”
But Shane Mortensen, Local 39’s head negotiator, said, “Kaiser wants to compare us to engineers in Portland or Los Angeles. 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.”
The company is no stranger to unhappy employees. In November, Kaiser released a plan to create a two-tiered wage system that would give lower pay to new hires and was immediately met with outrage. Nurses and other medical personnel had approved a strike through their unions, but Kaiser reached an agreement with them to avert the strike.
On Nov. 18 and 19, over 40,000 Kaiser employees participated in sympathy strikes across Northern California in support of the engineers. At the Redwood City location, hundreds held signs, danced and chanted in solidarity — a major difference between the usual dozen that have occupied the street corner.
“I feel with this much of a turnout it should show the public we’ve been out here, we’ve been standing strong and together we stand,” says Bahamondes of the sympathy strike.
While thousands of employees protested in solidarity, and the intersection of Veterans Boulevard and Walnut Street rang with cars beeping in support, ultimately, the power was still in Kaiser’s hands to make a change.
It is 27 days after the solidarity strike and there has still been no progress made.
“I’m not going to lie when you wake up at night, that’s when it affects you psychologically. Of course, we all need the money, and we all have bills but I’m thinking how am I going to be making this money, how am I going to do it this week or next week,” says Rick Vigil, a stationary engineer with 18 years of experience.
This dilemma does not get any easier as the group moves into the holiday season. For now, the standoff between Local 39 and Kaiser Permanente continues as the engineers have no plan of giving up.
“If we all stick together, we keep each other strong, we keep unity, we keep solidarity. In terms of longevity, we’re here for the long haul,” says Vigil.