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Engines Out and Pickets Up to Stop Health Plan Downgrade by Cummins

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East Bay Health Care Workers Strike Forces County to Disband the Boss |  Today's Workplace

Thirty-three heavy-duty engine mechanics have been on an open-ended strike since June 8 at the Cummins service shop in San Leandro, California.

These technicians service the engines and generators that power Silicon Valley tech giants and buses for the Bay Area’s local public transit agencies. They worked through the pandemic, without adequate personal protective equipment, sanitizing procedures, or hazard pay. The shop was busier than ever.

But as their reward for their hard work, dedication, and personal risk to keep the Bay Area running, Cummins kicked them off the health care plans they sorely need.

For 18 months after the Machinists (IAM) Local 1546 contract expired in 2020, management had refused to budge on its demand to strip workers of their union-negotiated Kaiser HMO plan.

This month, declaring an impasse, the company unilaterally forced workers off their plan and onto the kind of costly health savings account plan it had already pushed on the rest of its workers nationwide. Deductibles shot up to $8,000 for individuals and $11,000 for families.

The mechanics had had enough. With nearly every worker in the shop taking part, they walked off the job and went on strike for the first time in 20 years.

LAST ONE STANDING

Cummins is a multinational Fortune 500 company that manufactures, installs, and services engines in buses and other large vehicles and ships. The company’s mobile teams install and service generators at hospitals, stadiums, and data centers around the U.S.

The strike at the San Leandro shop is the final stand against a corporate behemoth that has won health care concessions at every other shop in the country. Cummins has forced not only its nonunion shops, mostly in the South and Midwest, but also its thousands of union workers in California and the Northeast onto expensive, low-quality plans.

Louis Huaman, a mechanic at the San Leandro shop for 40 years, said that he and his co-workers saw this fight coming. “We didn’t think we’d be the last one standing, but we’re drawing the line.”

Another longtime employee, who asked to remain anonymous, explained how management’s plan would leave him high and dry: “I’m a dialysis patient. Right now I have a $15 co-pay. On management’s plan, I’d pay $600 a visit. I’d probably spend the $8,000 deductible by May—and have to do it all over the next year.”

The surging health expenses would make it impossible for him to afford to continue to live in the costly Bay Area, he said. “I’ve got an elderly dad with health issues, and he lives here. The reason I stay at this job is so I can be close to him.”

Others emphasized the importance of having good health insurance in a physically taxing job. “This job will wear you down,” said Mike Nelson, shop steward and a technician in the shop for three decades. “Batteries go up in flames. Engines can drop on you if you’re not careful. You need good health care.”

PROFITS ARE SOARING

During its push to slash workers’ health care, the company has been extremely profitable lately.

Cummins has been picking up new business, according to Nelson, since the pandemic shut down in-house service crews at many transit agencies and other clients.

“The company made $6 billion [in revenue] in the first quarter this year, which is a billion over that quarter last year,” he said. Cummins bragged that it made $600 million in profit during the quarter.

Management has pushed through mergers and corporate takeovers of independent local distributors in the last few years. The 2013 corporate takeover of the San Leandro shop, formerly a distributor with a local owner, now looks to workers like a first step in management’s strategy to break a strong union shop and its hard-earned health care.

Aware of the company’s flush profits and high demand, these machinists have been emboldened to fight back. “When we’re out here, we’re costing them at least $100,000 a day,” Nelson estimated from the picket line, pointing to lost business due to the strike.

Google cancelled its Cummins service contract this week and switched to a competitor, which workers believe is also union. Machinists have parted the picket line almost daily for local transit agencies and a manufacturer to tow their unrepaired buses out of the service yard.

MAKING IT HARD FOR SCABS

Besides maintaining a picket line at the main gate of the Cummins yard, the Machinists are placing striking workers at sites where they perform generator work across the Bay Area. They’ve cultivated relationships with the workers in other union locals who staff these sites.

With this strategy, the mechanics and their allies have been slowing down work for the scabs that Cummins has sent in from its nonunion Arizona and Colorado shops.

On their last day working before the strike, some mechanics carefully took the engines out of vehicles, and removed oil pans or other parts that would make it very difficult for scabs to take over the work.

As the work piles up into a deep backlog, the workers hope that Cummins will have no other choice but to finally concede and restore the health care plan.

“We’ll be here as long as it takes,” said Huaman. “We know they can’t run these engines without us.”

This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on June 21, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Keith Brower Brown is a member of the East Bay Democratic Socialists of America and a steward in Auto Workers Local 2865.


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Working Americans Want “More” and “Better”

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What’s the fastest growing and most heavily unionized sector of the workforce? Surprisingly, it’s professionals and technicians, 23 percent of whom belong to unions, compared to only 15 percent of the entire workforce.

Why are these workers – who are supposed to be prospering in the new economy – joining unions? And why would even more organize if only the right to organize was strengthened for all working Americans?

Yes, part of the explanation is that so many classroom teachers, social workers, and college professors work in the public sector, where employers are less likely to fire or harass workers who try to form unions. But that’s just part of the story. As with other workers, professionals and technicians suffer from stagnant wages, shrinking benefits, and insecure jobs. Moreover, these workers are also vulnerable to offshoring, which is eliminating from 300,000 to 600,000 American jobs every year.

But there’s also one other important source of dissatisfaction for workers in professional, technical, and skilled service and blue-collar jobs. With corporations increasingly focused on cutting costs and boosting their quarterly profit statements, workers are subjected to more micromanagement, second-guessing and penny-pinching. In growing numbers of industries and occupations, workers who care about quality products and services find themselves overruled by managers who care mostly about the bottom line. Thus, nurses and doctors find their professional judgments being overruled by insurance companies and HMO’s. Aircraft engineers are being compelled to cut back on the tests that they conduct on the airplanes. Software developers and testers are told to rush products through to completion. And journalists are being steered away from serious stories and asked to focus on fluff.

These pressures to cut corners are creating new kinds of workplace conflicts. Model employees are becoming malcontents because they care enough to get mad about threats to their professional standards and the quality of the products they make and the services they provide.

Many of America’s most educated, skilled, and committed workers are more dissatisfied than ever. In most workplaces, these workers aren’t organized, so their discontent takes the form of “silent strikes.” In the face of massive layoffs, increased workloads for their remaining employees, and drastic changes in their strategies and product lines, non-union companies such as IBM and Kodak have suffered from internal dissension. In occupations such as nursing, teaching, and engineering, many workers are leaving and fewer are entering the profession, creating growing shortages. Given the choices between staying and fighting or giving up and getting out, many workers are simply departing.

But others are staying and fighting for the future of their professions and the companies, hospitals, and public agencies where they work. During the year 2000, I interviewed workers who took part in workplace conflicts in the Seattle area. At Boeing, engineers and technicians conducted the longest and largest strike by professionals in private industry in U.S. history. But their picket signs said they were “On Strike For Boeing” because they believed they were fighting for the future of Boeing’s leadership in commercial aircraft. At Microsoft, workers holding short-term positions founded a website-based union –WashTech – to protest being perma-temps. But they were almost as upset about their problems testing software as they were about their own precarious prospects. At Northwest Hospital, technicians and service workers complained that patient care was getting short shrift and joined a union that had been founded by nurses. At Kaiser Aluminum, during a lockout that dragged on for two years, production workers allied themselves with environmentalists to combat corporate cutthroat tactics.

As I write in Love the Work, Hate the Job, these workers – and many others across the country – care deeply about the future of their companies and professions. In fact, they’re convinced that they care more about quality than the executives whom they work for. They’re joining together with their co-workers and taking issue with their employers for the same reasons that they entered their professions. Unions, companies, and public policymakers should take notice of – and tap into – this concern for quality.

More than a century ago, the founder of the American Federation of Labor, Samuel Gompers, summed up the movement’s demands with one word, “More.” At the beginning of the Twenty-First Century, union organizers should add one more word, “Better.”

About the Author: David Kusnet, a former staffer for AFSCME, was chief speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton from 1992 through 1994. He is the author of Love the Work, Hate the Job (Wiley, 2008) and a visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute.


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