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.”
Contribute to a strike fund set up by the workers here.
Keith Brower Brown, Ella Teevan, and Matt Carson are members of the East Bay Democratic Socialists of America. Brower Brown is a steward in Auto Workers Local 2865. Carson is a former member of UA Local 342.