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Working In These Times

Friday, Jun 4, 2010, 7:46 am

Over 1,000 Red Cross Workers Launch 3-Day Strike Over Safety, Staffing

BY Art Levine

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A worker walks on the loading dock of the Red Cross Blood Services Southern Region in Atlanta, Ga. In 2003, Red Cross officials asked all of the hospitals it services to suspend use of certain blood units collected in Georgia and northern Florida. White particles, probably from the plastic bags the blood has been stored in, were discovered in the blood supply.   (Photo by Erik S. Lesser/Getty Images)

After raising alarms for years about compromised blood safety and understaffing, over 1,000 Red Cross workers walked off their jobs Wednesday on a three-day strike. Contract talks have been stalled for over a year in some cities.

For 17 years, American Red Cross has operated under a federal consent decree that requires it to clean up its blood safety practices, as the AFL-CIO blog observes. Since 2003, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has fined the Red Cross $21 million for blood safety violations.

"The people who draw blood and test blood know best how to make sure America's blood supply is safe. That's why we're putting our jobs on the line—to ensure that working conditions at Red Cross promote donor safety, and reduce blood safety errors on the job," Therese Mendoza, a registered nurse and SEIU member, declared at a news conference outside the Red Cross's Pomona headquarters.

One of the staffing issues at stake in the strikes in Connecticut, New York, Ohio, Michigan and California is the sharp cutbacks by the Red Cross in registered nurses and other well-trained health staffers in blood drives.

In Connecticut, 200 union workers, including nurses and lab technicians, who have been working without a contract for a year, picketed outside American Red Cross offices. They carried signs that read, "Safe Staffing = Safe Blood Supply."

"The people who screen donors and handle the blood play a critical role in making sure that America's blood supply is safe," said phlebotomist Christine Holschlag, president of AFSCME Local 3145.

Last month at a news conference highlighting the concerns of a workers' coalition and health advocates about Red Cross blood safety, AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker said:

Red Cross employees know best what is going on with blood drives and safety. They believe there is a clear link between bad American Red Cross labor policies and blood safety compliance failures. This includes understaffing blood drives, assigning workers to regular 14-hour days, and eliminating the most experienced licensed medical personnel, creating a low-morale, high-turnover work environment.

The work stoppage, designed in part to strengthen the bargaining position of workers for safer conditions when negotiations resume next week, led a few blood drives to be postponed. A Red Cross spokesman in Toledo tried to cast the unions as the one threatening the blood supply, but also said that critical functions wouldn't be affected:

Local director John Sherer said a three-day strike by the Red Cross blood services department has put a halt to blood collection.

"All the sponsors were notified and all the donors were notified," said Tiffany Hayes, marketing specialist with Western Lake Erie Region of the American Red Cross, based in Toledo.

Hayes stated the striking employees are members of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 75.

The strike is backed by a coalition of unions in seven American Red Cross Blood Services regions.

"Our national system allows the Red Cross to transport blood to wherever it is needed. We expect to continue our operations regardless of any work stoppages and remain committed to our mission of supplying blood and blood products to any patient who needs it," a Red Cross statement said.

"It is important to note that Red Cross services provided to communities by local chapters disaster services, service to the Armed Forces, preparedness, health and safety and international services are not affected by this work stoppage."

The unions, too, are aware of public perceptions, so they consciously chose to limit the strike to three days so it wouldn't undercut blood collection. As one Toledo area paper, the Advertiser-Tribune, reported:

The unions limited the strike to three days to maintain an adequate blood supply for the public. Dudley said the strike is to end at 12:01 a.m. Saturday in the Western Lake Erie Region. Dudley said union concerns include safety and working conditions.

"The wage increases aren't sufficient," Dudley said. "On the benefit side, the employer wants all members to accept the same plan as all the non-union workers, but the plan is bad. The plan gives the employer the right to make any adjustments to it that they want."

"The other thing that comes into play is the staffing levels at blood drives and folks not getting their breaks, not getting their lunches and working really long shifts," Dudley said. "We are concerned because short staffing can lead to errors."

The unions are seeking to show that low wages and understaffing contribute to the compromised safety of the Red Cross blood supply, as confirmed by both a federal court and the FDA. That's why they're seeking to enlist public support for a petition asking for improved conditions and blood safety practices for Red Cross workers:

Please join us by signing the Workers Committee for Blood Safety Petition. By signing on, we will keep you informed with updates on future actions.

We the undersigned are dedicated to keeping donors and our nation's blood supply safe. We recognize that for 17 years, the American Red Cross has had significant blood safety compliance failures. Despite $21 million in FDA fines, Red Cross has been unable to get out from under a federal consent decree.

We believe there is a clear link between bad labor policies at Red Cross and blood safety compliance failures. Practices including understaffing blood drives, assigning workers to 14 hour days, and eliminating the most experienced licensed medical personnel, all contribute to a low-morale, high-turnover work environment and increase mistakes on the job. To the contrary, retaining experienced employees at Red Cross is part of the solution to improving compliance and keeping the blood supply safe.

We have formed the Workers Committee for Blood Safety to serve as a watchdog for blood and donor safety and to advocate for Red Cross employees. We have decided we can't wait any longer. Safety, regulatory responsibility, respect at work, and positive reform must start from the bottom up.

Art Levine, a contributing editor of The Washington Monthly, has written for Mother Jones, The American Prospect, The New Republic, The Atlantic, Slate.com, Salon.com and numerous other publications.

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