“Who’s got the power? Union power!”
The chants echoed across Santa Clara’s Lawrence Expressway on Thursday, Nov. 18, as hundreds of employees at Kaiser Permanente in Santa Clara took to the streets in a show of solidarity.
The 24-hour sympathy strike was part of a larger strike across Northern California as a show of support for the Local 39 IUOE operating engineers.
“They’re part of the family. This is one big family. That’s why we’re all out here. They’re our union brothers and sisters,” said Heather Wright, a Kaiser employee and a regional contract specialist for the union. “They’re feeling their pain. They’ve been out here over two months. They were out here. Doing a simple strike for one day is the least we could do because of the sacrifices they’ve made already. So yeah, we’re all out here, just showing that we’re here with you and we’re here to fight this fight with you.”
But Kaiser says the sympathy strike is not fair to patients, especially when a majority of the picketers have fair, current contracts.
“It’s unconscionable that union leaders would ask health care workers to walk away from the patients who need them and deliberately disrupt their care,” said a Kaiser spokesperson. “We question why leaders of other unions are asking their members to walk out on patients on Nov. 18 and 19 in sympathy for Local 39. This will not bring us closer to an agreement and most important, it is unfair to our members and patients to disrupt their care when they most need our employees to be there for them.”
Despite the statement from Kaiser, more than 40,000 workers across Northern California walked off the job as part of the sympathy strike. Picketers in Santa Clara were boisterous. They played music, chanted and cheered loudly at each horn honk of support from passing cars.
The display brought attention to the plight of the engineers’ union, which has walked the picket lines for two months now. The union represents about 600 operating engineers who are demanding better pay and benefits. Kaiser says throughout the strike, it has bargained in good faith.
“Our proposals to Local 39 will keep our engineers among the best compensated in their profession, at an average of more than $180,000 in total wages and benefits. We are not proposing any takeaways and our proposals do not differentiate between current and future employees,” said a Kaiser spokesperson.
Union leaders see it differently. They say the engineers are the backbone of Kaiser facilities and during COVID, the engineers were stretched just as thin as other frontline workers.
“They’re physically, mentally, emotionally exhausted and as people needed time off, they were denied,” said Wright. “When people were trying to stay safe, they were denied COVID pay. At the very beginning, people weren’t even able to have personal protective equipment.”
Union leaders say the real issue is that Kaiser’s upper management has gone off track.
“We’re supposed to be patient member focused. Right now, this strike is because Kaiser has lost its way,” said Wright. “They are no longer patient and member focus. They are putting profits over members, profits over patients, profits over people. They need to get back to the mindset that our patients should be at the center of everything.”