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Kaiser unions walk with striking engineers in ‘sympathy strikes’

Unions representing hundreds of workers at Kaiser Permanente are marching picket lines in Sonoma County and elsewhere Thursday and Friday in solidarity with the engineers’ union, which has been striking for two months against the health care giant.

Here’s what’s happening:

Q: Who is on strike and why?

A: Members of the Stationary Engineers Local 39 have been manning a picket line outside Kaiser’s Bicentennial Way medical center in Santa Rosa since contract talks broke down two months ago, primarily over wages. The union maintains their approximately 600 workers are lower paid than others in similar jobs in the region, while Kaiser argues the engineers are among its best-compensated employees and that its demands are beyond what other union members receive. The sides met Tuesday and Wednesday for further negotiations.

Q: What are the other unions doing?

A: Other unions want to show solidarity with the engineers, so on Thursday, members of three unions representing a wide swath of health care, office, technology and legal workers will conduct a “sympathy strike” if the engineers remain without an agreement. Members of SEIU-UHW, the largest Kaiser union, will join the picket line for 24 hours beginning Thursday morning, as will members of the unions representing Kaiser office workers and attorneys. On Friday, the California Nurses Association and the National Union of Healthcare Workers will also picket in Santa Rosa. SEIU plans to picket at other Kaiser sites in Northern California as well.

Q: Who else is involved?

A: The pharmacists’ union and that of rehabilitation therapists have reached tentative agreements with Kaiser management that averted labor action for them and more than 60,000 other Kaiser employees in the state. Their union members still must vote on whether to agree to the three- and four-year deals.

Q: What is a “sympathy strike”?

A: A representative of SEIU-UHW, Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers, explained it this way: “We are ready to support the engineers. Other workers are seeing what is happening with the 700 engineers and they don’t want to be bullied like that.” They join other unions on the picket line to show their support. Kaiser said it believes the other unions’ actions are not appropriate and may not be protected by law.

Q: What does Kaiser say?

A: “As one of the largest health care union employers in the United States — with nearly 75% of our employees working under collective bargaining agreements — we fully understand solidarity among unions. But given the demands of Local 39, on top of the already market-leading compensation and highest retirement benefit of any represented employee in our organization, we believe that sympathy strikes are not appropriate in this case. We are asking our staff to choose to be there for our patients, and to come to work.”

Q: How will this affect me as a Kaiser patient?

A: Kaiser said doctors and clinical managers will continue treating patients, along with “qualified contingency staff.” It said some non-urgent medical appointments or procedures may be affected and staff will reach out to patients in advance to reschedule or modify appointments. Some lab, optometry or radiology services may be temporarily closed or have reduced hours. Members with treatment needs are advised to call the 24-hour Appointment and Advice Call Center.

You can reach Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter.

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