California Hospital Workers Strike, Fracturing Pandemic’s Uneasy Labor Peace

Hamilton Nolan July 27, 2020

Scott Rocco exits the new hospital tent outside the Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital on Tuesday, July 14, 2020, in Santa Rosa, Calif. (Santiago Mejia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

Despite nation­wide short­ages of per­son­al pro­tec­tive equip­ment (PPE) and work­ing con­di­tions that have often been life-threat­en­ing, there have not been major strikes of hos­pi­tal work­ers in Amer­i­ca since the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic struck. Until now.

More than 700 employ­ees of San­ta Rosa Memo­r­i­al Hos­pi­tal, a region­al trau­ma cen­ter in California’s Sono­ma Coun­ty, held a five-day strike that con­clud­ed on Fri­day. Fore­most among the moti­vat­ing issues were cuts in health care and paid sick leave that the hos­pi­tal, owned by Prov­i­dence St. Joseph Health, was push­ing on employ­ees dur­ing a con­tentious con­tract bar­gain­ing cam­paign. The employ­ees are mem­bers of the Nation­al Union of Health­care Work­ers (NUHW).

The biggest rea­son is because we’ve been out of con­tract for over a year, and the hos­pi­tal is try­ing to force us into a pret­ty bad con­tract,” said Steven Bat­son, an anes­the­sia tech and 10-year vet­er­an of the hos­pi­tal, speak­ing from the pick­et line last week, where he was joined by hun­dreds of his cowork­ers. The com­pa­ny wants to sig­nif­i­cant­ly increase health care pre­mi­ums, Bat­son said, and to take paid time off away from senior work­ers and shift it to new­er work­ers as a recruit­ment tool. Bat­son, a shop stew­ard, said the con­tentious bar­gain­ing over this con­tract is absolute­ly” the worst he has expe­ri­enced in his ten years.

Chuck Desepte, an X‑ray tech­ni­cian who has been at San­ta Rosa for 13 years, agreed. It’s the take­aways that I’m not accept­ing,” he said. They can afford this. We don’t want to go back­wards. We’ve been here for this com­mu­ni­ty over and over again.”

In May, the New York Times report­ed that Prov­i­dence Health, which received a bailout of more than $500 mil­lion from the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment in the CARES Act, has a $12 bil­lion cash pile and siz­able invest­ments in hedge funds and ven­ture cap­i­tal. Last year, Providence’s port­fo­lio of invest­ments gen­er­at­ed about $1.3 bil­lion in prof­its, far exceed­ing the prof­its from its hos­pi­tal oper­a­tions,” the Times wrote.

Though the strike was not direct­ly caused by the fall­out of the coro­n­avirus, the pan­dem­ic is play­ing an unavoid­able role. Bat­son said that although the union held a strike autho­riza­tion vote in Feb­ru­ary that passed over­whelm­ing­ly, it held off on tak­ing action once the pan­dem­ic hit. He said that the hos­pi­tal was slow to require uni­ver­sal mask­ing, and that to this day, house­keep­ing staff and out­pa­tient lab tech­ni­cians who do coro­n­avirus test­ing are not giv­en ade­quate PPE, like N95 masks. The hos­pi­tal has def­i­nite­ly used this pan­dem­ic as a weapon against us,” he said, includ­ing by try­ing to por­tray the work­ers as irre­spon­si­ble for going on strike.

In a state­ment on the first day of the strike, the hos­pi­tal wrote that we are deeply dis­ap­point­ed that NUHW has decid­ed to hold a five-day strike giv­en that the num­ber of COVID-19 cas­es is on the rise in Sono­ma Coun­ty and the poten­tial for a sig­nif­i­cant increase in hos­pi­tal­iza­tions remains.” The com­pa­ny also has­tened to paint employ­ees as self­ish­ly exploit­ing cur­rent events. The union has made clear in com­mu­ni­ca­tions to our care­givers that this is not a strike about per­son­al pro­tec­tive equip­ment (PPE) or work­place safe­ty. Instead, this is an ordi­nary dis­pute over the terms of our labor con­tract,” the hos­pi­tal wrote. It is unfor­tu­nate and unfound­ed that the union is using COVID-19 as a plat­form for its nego­ti­at­ing tac­tics. We nev­er deny a care­giv­er PPE.”

The com­pa­ny itself is play­ing hard­ball. It tried to dis­suade the strike with pre­emp­tive eco­nom­ic threats, post­ing omi­nous fliers warn­ing that, If NUHW sub­mits a strike notice, our cur­rent wage offer of an annu­al 3% increase will be low­ered to 2%, to account for the sig­nif­i­cant expense of a dis­rup­tive strike, and the cur­rent offer will be pulled off the table.” (Time will tell whether that threat stands as nego­ti­a­tions con­tin­ue.) As soon as the strike was called, the com­pa­ny stopped deduct­ing union dues from work­ers’ pay­checks, a move that serves to annoy and has­sle the union, mak­ing it much more time-inten­sive to col­lect dues. Con­tract­ed replace­ment work­ers from an out­side agency were brought in for the five-day dura­tion of the strike.

Though every labor action is unique, the fact that NUHW was will­ing to go through with the strike in the face of the inevitable attacks about respon­si­bil­i­ty dur­ing the pan­dem­ic could sig­nal that the frag­ile labor peace that has most­ly reigned in the health­care sec­tor — an indus­try afflict­ed with more than its share of dis­sat­is­fied and endan­gered union work­ers — may be buck­ling. Unions that have been cau­tious about going on strike over con­tract issues dur­ing this cri­sis will soon­er or lat­er be forced to decide whether they will allow employ­ers (who may have mul­ti-bil­lion-dol­lar invest­ment port­fo­lios) to make them swal­low con­ces­sions they would not have oth­er­wise accept­ed. The employ­ees at San­ta Rosa, who worked through major wild­fires in their area in 2017 and 2019 before fac­ing the Covid out­break this year, will soon find out if their bold action pays off.

It was not an easy deci­sion. We’re health care work­ers,” said Desepte. We want to take care of people.”

Hamil­ton Nolan is a labor reporter for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writ­ing about labor and pol­i­tics for Gawk­er, Splin­ter, The Guardian, and else­where. You can reach him at Hamilton@​InTheseTimes.​com.

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