The Big One is Coming: Strikes Rattle California Hospitals

Carl Finamore

California nurses pour into their September 14 to 16 National Nurses United convention in San Francisco, chanting "Strike!, Strike!, Strike!" One-thousand delegates attended, representing close to 170,000 nurses in every state of the union.

A total 23,000 nurs­es plan the largest nurs­es’ strike in U.S. history

The sud­den release of stored ener­gy could eas­i­ly describe earth­quakes, of which we are very famil­iar in Cal­i­for­nia. But this week, tremors of a dif­fer­ent sort will shake the state from north to south.

The sud­den release of pent up frus­tra­tions from more than 23,000 reg­is­tered nurs­es at 34 North­ern and Cen­tral Cal­i­for­nia hos­pi­tals will explode to the sur­face in a one-day strike on Thurs­day, Sep­tem­ber 22.

The work stop­page affects two of California’s largest and most prof­itable hos­pi­tal chains, Sut­ter Health and Kaiser Per­ma­nente, as well as Children’s Hos­pi­tal Oakland.

The strike at Sut­ter comes after nine months of failed nego­ti­a­tions,” Deb­o­rah Burg­er, R.N., told me. Burg­er is pres­i­dent of Nation­al Nurs­es Unit­ed and co-pres­i­dent of its affil­i­ate, the Cal­i­for­nia Nurs­es Association.

We staunch­ly refuse to be silenced on patient-care pro­tec­tions,” added Sharon Tobin, writ­ing in a CNA press state­ment. Tobin is a 24-year R.N. at Sut­ter Mills-Penin­su­la in Burlingame, Calif. A com­mon theme through­out management’s pro­pos­als is remov­ing our pres­ence on com­mit­tees that address impor­tant patient-care issues and nurs­ing practices.

Sut­ter doesn’t want to hear about any­thing that might cut into their huge profits.”

True to form, just as nurse Tobin sug­gest­ed, Sut­ter Health claims that the union’s pro­pos­als are out of touch. Demands like these would add tens of mil­lions in extra costs for patients.”

We lis­ten to this all the time in bar­gain­ing,” Burg­er respond­ed. So, we already know Sut­ter is seri­ous about reduc­tions to patient care and cuts to employ­ee pen­sions and health coverage.

And, the same goes for Kaiser.

For exam­ple, 1,400 Kaiser phar­ma­cists, rep­re­sent­ed by the Guild for Pro­fes­sion­al Phar­ma­cists, just got a con­tract that, we strong­ly believe, con­tains sig­nif­i­cant con­ces­sions we would not accept.”

In fact, the Guild, an inde­pen­dent union, reports on its web­site changes to their med­ical cov­er­age and admits that their pen­sions are now frozen.” In oth­er words, pre­vi­ous­ly accrued ben­e­fits remain but the amount will nev­er grow because Kaiser will no longer make contributions.

Guild vice pres­i­dent Howard Hertz com­ment­ed that the ben­e­fit changes Kaiser is try­ing to impose pun­ish peo­ple for their past loy­al­ty to Kaiser … they are not just wrong, but immoral.”

Kaiser’s stance infu­ri­ates nurs­es as well, espe­cial­ly when threats to Social Secu­ri­ty and Medicare grow daily.

The same con­tentious bar­gain­ing has played out in Kaiser nego­ti­a­tions with the Nation­al Union of Health­care Work­ers over the last year. NUHW pres­i­dent Sal Rossel­li explained the issues to me:

Kaiser has made over $5.7 bil­lion in prof­its over the last two and a half years, and its exec­u­tives receive mil­lions of dol­lars in com­pen­sa­tion and as many as eight sep­a­rate pen­sion plans each. There’s no eco­nom­ic jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for Kaiser’s insis­tence on cut­ting health­care and retire­ment ben­e­fits for thou­sands of care­givers.

There’s even less jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for Kaiser’s refusal to pro­vide nurs­es, social work­ers and men­tal health pro­fes­sion­als with the staff they need to pro­vide Kaiser patients with safe and time­ly access to care.

Kaiser psy­chi­atric social work­er David Mal­lon, an NUHW nego­ti­at­ing com­mit­tee mem­ber, wit­ness­es these prob­lems each day. For decades, the clin­i­cians at Kaiser have asked for more staff,” he says. But there has been no fun­da­men­tal change over the years in the atti­tude of the finan­cial man­agers and prin­ci­pal exec­u­tives at Kaiser: Do more with less, and damned be the patients who don’t get bet­ter with what we offer.’ ”

The unholy jux­ta­po­si­tion of record prof­its and dra­con­ian cuts has jolt­ed employ­ees into orga­niz­ing for Sep­tem­ber 22, which is expect­ing to be the largest Kaiser strike and the largest nurs­es’ strike in U.S. history.

But it does not stop there. There is more his­to­ry to be made.

Sol­i­dar­i­ty: not just a slogan

In con­junc­tion with the three-day work stop­page by 4,000 mem­bers of the NUHW on Sep­tem­ber 22, anoth­er 17,000 CNA/NNU nurs­es will join their pick­et lines on the first day of the walk out.

Kaiser R.N.s will strike in sym­pa­thy and sup­port for [NUHW] Kaiser … front­line work­ers … to protest sub­stan­tial reduc­tions in health­care and retire­ment cov­er­age,” accord­ing to CNA’s press statement.

In these des­per­ate times, we need each oth­er,” Burg­er explained to me.

Not so, accord­ing to Kaiser Foun­da­tion Hos­pi­tals and Health Plan spokes­woman Gay West­fall, senior vice pres­i­dent in human resources.

Sim­ply put,” she said, Kaiser Per­ma­nente is not in con­tract nego­ti­a­tions with CNA – and our bar­gain­ing with NUHW does not affect CNA.”

Wrong again, says Burger.

Nurs­es inher­ent­ly have an affin­i­ty for peo­ple suf­fer­ing hard­ships, peo­ple just mak­ing ends meet, strug­gling to pro­vide for their fam­i­lies, post­pon­ing or reject­ing sug­gest­ed med­ical care because they don’t have the mon­ey or because of insuf­fi­cient insur­ance coverage.

We see it all, on a dai­ly basis.

So, when we hear about Kaiser’s plans for take-aways and reduc­tions in patient-care staffing, we are eager to sup­port our NUHW co-work­ers and let them know they are doing the right thing by resisting.”

Anoth­er 2,000 Kaiser mem­bers of Oper­at­ing Engi­neers Local 39, AFL-CIO, agree, and have also decid­ed to join NUHW pick­ets in a sym­pa­thy strike.

This makes a total of 17,000 nurs­es and 2,000 engi­neers hon­or­ing legit­i­mate pick­et lines of the 4,000 NUHW Kaiser co-work­ers who orig­i­nal­ly vot­ed to strike.

The day’s activ­i­ties also include, it must not be for­got­ten, anoth­er 6,000 CNA/NNU nurs­es con­duct­ing their own sep­a­rate strike at Sut­ter Hos­pi­tals and Children’s Hos­pi­tal in Oak­land, thus com­pris­ing 23,000 total nurs­es on strike for the day.

It is tru­ly a remark­able exam­ple of mass protest and gen­uine sol­i­dar­i­ty, long absent from labor dis­putes in this coun­try, either because of explic­it con­trac­tu­al pro­hi­bi­tions, insuf­fi­cient lead­er­ship courage or inad­e­quate mem­ber­ship support.

In the case of the NUHW Kaiser strike, a per­fect storm came togeth­er by pro­vid­ing explic­it legal pro­tec­tions for any­one respect­ing pick­et lines (1); by involv­ing bold union lead­ers; and, most impor­tant­ly, by attract­ing informed and deter­mined mem­bers through steady rounds of edu­ca­tion on the issues.

Burg­er also terse­ly observed that Kaiser’s belat­ed con­cern for patients is com­plete­ly disin­gen­u­ous, only intend­ed to mis­lead the pub­lic dur­ing the strike.

We want peo­ple to know, CNA has set up patient-care com­mit­tees at each work­site and at each facil­i­ty, so that Kaiser can call upon us for any emergency.”

Sol­i­dar­i­ty for some, divi­sion for others

Jim Clif­ford, a ther­a­pist at Kaiser San Diego and an NUHW nego­tia­tor, proud­ly announced in a union leaflet that psy­chol­o­gists, ther­a­pists, social work­ers, opti­cal work­ers, health edu­ca­tors, dieti­cians, speech pathol­o­gists and audi­ol­o­gists are unit­ed in NUHW and we’re stand­ing up and fight­ing back.

And,” he said, acknowl­edg­ing sup­port from oth­er Kaiser work­ers, we’re not alone. If Kaiser suc­ceeds in enact­ing these cuts, it will affect all Kaiser work­ers, espe­cial­ly mem­bers of the Kaiser Ser­vice and Tech and MSW units rep­re­sent­ed by SEIU-UHW who will soon face the same takeaways.”

But SEIU-UHW lead­ers do not see it that way.

Their spokesper­son, Steve Tross­man, told me that SEIU-UHW [Kaiser] mem­bers have their rais­es and ben­e­fits ful­ly pro­tect­ed and guar­an­teed in their nation­al agree­ment through Sep­tem­ber of 2013. Next year we will nego­ti­ate a new nation­al agree­ment in which we will fight for and win pay rais­es, full pro­tec­tion of all of our ben­e­fits, and enhanced job secu­ri­ty. We have a plan that we are con­fi­dent in and we are not going to be dis­tract­ed by the fab­ri­cat­ed claims or des­per­ate pub­lic­i­ty tac­tics of a fail­ing orga­ni­za­tion like NUHW.”

Trossman’s dis­parag­ing remarks toward NUHW under­score his union’s bit­ter dis­pute with NUHW over the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of 45,000 Kaiser Ser­vice and Tech­ni­cal workers.

This has only grown worse since the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board recent­ly accused SEIU-UHW of numer­ous unfair labor prac­tices taint­ing the last elec­tion in 2010, thus set­ting up anoth­er union elec­tion con­test between NUHW and UHW in the near future.

Per­haps this rival­ry also accounts for UHW’s arguably over­stat­ed con­fi­dence in its still undis­closed plan” to con­vince Kaiser to agree to full pro­tec­tion of our benefits.”

It cer­tain­ly seems to me that when unions rep­re­sent­ing 19,000 work­ers take the dra­mat­ic and unprece­dent­ed step of announc­ing a sol­i­dar­i­ty strike sup­port­ing 4,000 NUHW co-work­ers, it is osten­si­bly because there are valid and legit­i­mate con­cerns about Kaiser’s shame­ful and dis­grace­ful inten­tions. Ide­al­ly, all unions would fol­low the exam­ple of CNA and OE and sup­port NUHW against management’s immi­nent threats to cut patient ser­vices and employ­ee ben­e­fits. It is a mis­take to blind­ly down­play real dan­gers with a false con­fi­dence that assumes rais­es and ben­e­fits are ful­ly pro­tect­ed and guar­an­teed” and that mis­char­ac­ter­izes and min­i­mizes legit­i­mate protests as des­per­ate pub­lic­i­ty tactics.”

Seri­ous divi­sions between unions, cer­tain­ly in this par­tic­u­lar case, can and should be set­tled through a demo­c­ra­t­ic and fair rep­re­sen­ta­tion elec­tion soon to be sched­uled. And all of it can and should also be done with­out jeop­ar­diz­ing pick­et line uni­ty at the work site.

(1) In Children’s Hos­pi­tal of Oak­land v. Cal­i­for­nia Nurs­es Asso­ci­a­tion, 283 F.3d 1188 (9th Cir. 2002), the fed­er­al appel­late court for the Ninth Cir­cuit (which includes Cal­i­for­nia) explained that the right to engage in a sym­pa­thy strike, that is, the right to strike for the pur­pose of sup­port­ing the cause of work­ers rep­re­sent­ed by a dif­fer­ent union, is a right pro­tect­ed under Sec­tion 7 of the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act, 29 USC §157.

Carl Finamore is a del­e­gate to the San Fran­cis­co Labor Coun­cil, AFL-CIO, and for­mer Pres­i­dent (retired), Air Trans­port Employ­ees, Local Lodge 1781, IAMAW.
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