Health workers strike for safe staffing, job security

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OAKLAND, Calif. — Bright purple tee-shirts filled the plaza at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center here Oct. 29, as striking health care workers gathered to demand the highly profitable company improve staffing levels, stop contracting work out and drop proposed takeaways in the contract they have been negotiating since May.

The strikers were among thousands of nursing, technical and service workers participating in a day of action at 15 mostly northern California health facilities operated by Sutter Health, the Daughters of Charity and the Alliance Clinic. Sutter workers have been without a contract since Sept. 30. Workers struck for 24 hours at 11 sites; they held informational pickets at four more. At three Sutter facilities including Oakland, registered nurses belonging to the California Nurses Association (CNA) struck in solidarity.

Longtime environmental services worker Odell Hunter told the World that his union, United Healthcare Workers West, SEIU, is fighting for the needs of hospital patients as well as the workers. Concerning the union’s key demand for adequate staffing, Hunter observed that “What helps us helps the public, too.”

While state law mandates nurse-to-patient ratios for RNs, no such provisions exist for other health care workers.

Hunter, who later told the crowd he’d raised his family — now young adults — during his 34 years “on this job,” said Sutter’s proposed takeaways in seniority rights and health benefits are also unacceptable.

Millicent Borland, a registered nurse in the hospital’s medical-surgical unit and a CNA member, said she joined the picket line because “professional nurses see health care workers as a team. Without the housekeepers, dietary workers, licensed vocational nurses and technicians, we can’t care for our patients.” Borland said the RNs “went through three strikes to get our contract,” because Sutter sought the same cutbacks and takeaways from the nurses.

UHW’s one-day strike came within days after the union won an agreement with Catholic Healthcare West that includes wage increases averaging 26 percent over four years, supplemental unemployment benefits for laid-off workers and other job security provisions. The CHW workers’ contract already includes safe staffing committees with binding arbitration if needed, fully paid family health coverage, retiree health care and pensions, strong job security and union rights provisions.

UHW President Sal Rosselli highlighted the CHW agreement and a comparable pact with Kaiser as he told the rally, “We’re not going to settle for anything less … If Kaiser and CHW and other companies can listen to their health care workers and give them a voice, so can Sutter.'

The workers also heard strong expressions of solidarity from area elected officials and from the Alameda Labor Council.

Calling the workers’ proposals “reasonable proposals that deserve immediate consideration,” Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) thanked the union members “for their ongoing commitment to seeking fair and just working conditions for all.” In a statement read to the rally, she pointed out that the Sutter and Daughters of Charity facilities “provide the majority of beds in Alameda County,” Lee said unsuccessful talks potentially impact “untold numbers” of area residents.

Alameda Labor Council head Sharon Cornu pledged the council’s full, ongoing support. “Please know you are not alone,” she said, noting that over 50,000 Alameda County workers have faced the same sorts of unacceptable contract proposals.

Robert Lieber, mayor of the nearby city of Albany and himself a registered nurse, told the crowd, “As an RN myself, I know what you do. Sutter has an agenda to take down unions; all they care about is dividing you.” In a reference to the Nov. 4 national elections, Lieber added, “I’m tired of a National Labor Relations Board that always sides with management.”

mbechtel @pww.org