Children’s Hospital nurses begin five-day strike
on May 5, 2011
Children’s Hospital nurses went on strike today after year-long contract negotiations broke down over health benefits. On the first day of a five-day strike, nurses on the picket line say spirits are high and representatives from a half dozen other unions were on site to show support. Approximately forty nurses stood in clumps in front of the hospital on the corner of Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue and 52nd Street, waving signs at passing cars. Dozens of cars and even a passing BART train honked to show support for the nurses.
Wendy Bloom, a registered nurse who is on the California Nurses Association bargaining team, said the support from other unions including the United Healthcare Workers, the Alameda Labor Council, and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, was encouraging. “We wish we didn’t have to be out here,” she said. “But we appreciate all of the support.”
But Cynthia Chiarappa, a Children’s Hospital spokesperson, said that the nurses’ ranks may not be as cohesive as they appear. She said approximately 30 percent of the nurses scheduled to work the day shift crossed the picket line and went to work this morning. “They told me that they just couldn’t leave their patients,” Chiarappa said.
The striking nurses downplayed that estimate. “Those numbers are probably inflated—they did that last time,” said Bloom, referring to a three-day strike the nurses organized last October when the same contract negotiations broke down over disputes over wages. “But even if it’s true, that means that 70 percent of nurses are out here with us,” she said.
The nurses voted to approve a strike two weeks ago, when talks broke down between the California Nurses Association and hospital administrators over issues regarding healthcare benefits. In the past, the hospital paid the entire cost of healthcare premiums. Hospital administrators are still offering a fully-funded healthcare option with Kaiser Permanente as the insurer, but nurses and their families would have to receive all of their care through Kaiser providers, and could not bring their own kids to Children’s Hospital for care. The hospital administrators have presented another option under which nurses would have to pay an additional $4,000 per year or take a high-deductible PPO if they wanted to bring their own children to Children’s Hospital. This benefits package is the same one that most other hospital employees already have.
Martha Kuhl, a 29-year oncology and hematology transplants nurse who is on the bargaining team, said Children’s Hospital nurses shouldn’t have to pay to bring their own children to their hospital. “We believe that we give really great care, and nurses with children want to receive that care too,” she said.
The nurses have not had a contract with the hospital after more than a year of negotiations.
Children’s Hospital representatives say the strike is disruptive to patient care and the union’s demands are unreasonable. In a press release, Nancy Shibata, chief of nursing at Children’s Hospital who is a manager and not in the union, criticized the California Nurses Association for being out of touch with fiscal realities. “We value our nurses, but CNA leaders are making demands that are simply out of touch with the current economic realities of our hospital,” Shibata said.
Cynthia Chiarappa said the hospital is in a period of economic distress. She said Children’s Hospital lost $69 million dollars between 2005 and 2009. The hospital is restructuring and finding ways to be financially viable, she said, but because the majority of their patients are on Medi-Cal, they receive cents on the dollar for most of the services they provide. “We’re so much on the safety net side that any cuts the governor makes to Medi-Cal hits us hard,” she said. Chiarappa said employee benefits account for 56 percent of their costs.
But Kuhl said the concessions the hospital is asking from nurses are more ideologically motivated. “They have imposed these concessions on nonunion workers already and they think it’s a matter of equity that they impose it on union workers,” she said. “When asked directly at the negotiation table if they needed these concessions from us or the hospital would close, they said ‘No, that’s not true.’”
Chiarappa said the nurse’s union, California Nurses Association-National Nurses’ Union, was also acting politically. “At the end of the day, any concession the union makes here affects bargaining at other hospitals,” she said. She said the union wanted to avoid creating a precedent about concessions at the bargaining table here so that nurses at other hospitals represented by CNA would not be asked to make the same ones.
The California Nurses Association represents over 750 nurses at Children’s Hospital. Chiarappa says that nurses are generously provided for, but the contract they have is based on a twenty year old contract, and times have changed. “The truth is that contracts negotiated in healthy times are healthier. And in leaner times, the contracts are leaner,” she said. She said the hospital provides full-time benefits to nurses who work at least 20 hours a week, which drives up healthcare costs, even though only 28 of the 758 nurses at Children’s Hospital work full-time. The hospital will continue offering full healthcare to part-time nurses, she said.
Both the nurses and the hospital administration say they are committed to making the strike as non-disruptive as possible for the patients. Hospital administrators cancelled the last scheduled bargaining meeting last week, saying they needed time to make preparations for the strike, which included rescheduling some elective surgeries and bringing in temporary nurses to keep the hospital running. “We were really prepared for this,” Chiarappa said. The nurses have also organized a patient protection team of specialized nurses in case they are needed in an emergency.
A rally is scheduled tomorrow at noon at the hospital in celebration of National Nurses Day, and Bloom says they are planning Mother’s Day activities.
When the strike ends next week, the nurses will go back to work and the bargaining team will go back to the table. Wendy Bloom said that there is always some awkwardness coming back in after a strike. “There’s always tension when you work with someone who has crossed the picket line,” she said. But Chiarappa is more positive. “There’s always some awkwardness after a strike, but we just tell everyone to focus on the kids and put the strike behind them,” she said.
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