Banging hammers on two metal “gongs,” honking air horns and waving signs, a group of Queen of the Valley Medical Center workers are refusing to work in an effort to pressure the hospital to agree to a union contract.
A group of 14 engineers and two painters voted to join the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE) an estimated 18 months ago. The strike started on Tuesday.
“We’re looking for fair wages and a fair benefit package,” said Jay Vega, district representative for IUOE Local Number 39.
“We respect the rights of caregivers to be represented by a union and to engage in this action and other lawful activities,” Larry Coomes, Queen CEO, said in a statement. “However, we are disappointed that the union has chosen to strike given that we’ve negotiated meaningful wage increases for our caregivers, with additional increases on each anniversary of the agreement.”
The protest may seem familiar.
A similar picket, but not a strike, was held on the same sidewalk in front of the Queen on Aug. 22 when National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW) members picketed for two hours. Members of that group, which includes around 400 workers, were protesting their lack of a signed contract. Those workers voted to join the NUHW in 2016.
On Tuesday, Vega said the IUOE union and hospital representatives have been negotiating their first contract for 18 months, with no luck.
“We’ve spent enough time at the bargaining table” without reaching an agreement, Vega said during a phone interview.
“We’ve reached a point where we’re not making the type of progress we want to make. Enough is enough.”
Vega said he could not elaborate on what the wages and benefits should be, only that the Queen engineers are “underpaid” compared to similar workers at other hospitals.
“We’re striking for fairness,” said Michael Zustak, who has worked as an engineer at the Queen for six years.
Zustak said engineers are responsible for all the systems at the hospital such as air conditioning, heating, electrical and fire safety.
It’s his first time to be on strike, said Zustak. But “we can’t allow patient care to suffer,” he said.
When asked why he thinks it has taken 18 months to bargain for their first contract, Zustak said, “I think it’s about power and control” on the administration side.
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Enrique Ruvalcaba has worked as an engineer at the Queen for 11 years.
“They don’t appreciate what we do,” he said of the hospital administration. “We are not asking for anything special,” but they do want a competitive wage.
Yes, it’s awkward being on a strike and picketing in front of his employer. “It’s scary,” said Ruvalcaba. “I’m afraid of repercussions,” he admitted. “But what we are asking for is fair.”
Jorge Torres, another Queen engineer, said he’s been a Queen employee for 18 years, having started as a cafeteria worker and working his way up.
“We just want to be recognized and appreciated for what we are –- a key part of this hospital,” said Torres.
On Wednesday morning, the only visible response from the hospital administration to the strike was a hospital security vehicle parked in an adjacent lot, staffed by several security people.
According to Coomes, the union’s planned strike “will not impact our patients and the safe, high quality care they receive at Queen of the Valley. We will maintain our daily operations and have contracted with a replacement agency,” which is standard practice for hospitals preparing for a strike, he said.
“Our preference has always been to reach a mutually acceptable agreement constructively and in good faith. We look forward to getting back to the bargaining table so we can continue working together toward our shared goals,” said Coomes.
The small group of engineers will be on strike 24/7, said Vega. According to workers picketing on Wednesday morning, at least one worker remained outside the Queen hospital on Trancas Street on Tuesday night. Across the street, a table with some food and supplies has been set up. A trailer with IUOE union signs was also parked across the street.
The signs, air horns and clanging gongs are getting attention, said the picketers.
Of the drivers that had passed the strikers on Trancas, “90% are supportive,” Torres said. The other 10% may not be, “but we gotta take the good with the bad.”
Providence St. Joseph is the process of creating a new partnership between its Northern California hospitals and several belonging to Adventist Health.