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Oakland nurses march and strike in protest of benefit cuts

on September 23, 2011

Thousands of registered nurses, clad in bright red scrubs, marched across Oakland Thursday in what organizers called the largest nursing strike in U.S. history. An estimated 21,000 healthcare workers joined picket lines, attended rallies or simply stayed home from work in protest of proposed employee benefit cuts at 38 hospitals across California.

“Nurses and health care providers have to hold the line,” said Liz Jacobs, a registered nurse and spokesperson for the California Nurses Association (CNA), which organized the strike in collaboration with National Union of Health Workers (NUHW). “If they start getting their health care taken away little by little until they have a meaningless health care plan, then everyone is at risk in our society. We are the safety net.”

While the strike targeted Sutter Health and Kaiser Permanente, two of the largest hospital chains in California, hundreds of nurses from Children’s Hospital and Research Center at Oakland also bolstered picket lines—making yesterday’s event the third nurses strike affecting Children’s Hospital this year.

The strike took place amid heated contract negotiations between nurses’ unions and several California hospitals that have proposed a number of sweeping, cost-cutting measures such as wage reductions and controversial health plan and pension fund changes.

In the East Bay, striking nurses held concurrent rallies at dozens of different hospitals, their brightly colored picket signs and matching scrubs lining city sidewalks like wide swathes of red ribbon. At Sutter’s Alta Bates Summit Medical Center, a sound system blasted oldies as nurses danced, sang and embraced one another jovially. Union leaders, including AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, took turns addressing the crowd and reiterating the various reasons behind the strike.

At Children’s Hospital, nurses have been without a contract for more than a year as they continue to protest a proposed health plan change that the union says would, among other provisions, increase nurses’ out-of-pocket costs by $5,000 per year. The plan is so expensive, the nurses say, that they wouldn’t be able to afford to bring their own children into the hospital for care.

But representatives from Children’s Hospital, which according to the hospital’s figures  lost $16 million in 2009 alone  because of declining contributions, argue that the cuts are inevitable.

“They are a key part of managing our expenses,” said Nancy Shibata, the chief nursing officer at Children’s. “CNA is asking for things that don’t make sense during these economic times.” Most of the hospital’s other employees have already agreed to the health plan change, she said.

Though hardly in the same grim financial situation as Children’s Hospital, both Sutter and Kaiser cite economic hardship as the reason behind their cost-cutting proposals — a claim that the nurses and their unions staunchly reject.

“We’re not talking about a little mom and pop grocery store here,” said Chuck Idelson, CNA’s communications director, noting that Sutter and Kaiser reaped substantial profits last year., according to the companies’ own reports. While Kaiser netted $2 billion in gains last year, Sutter reported $878 million in profits.

Nurses claim Sutter is asking for 150 concessions, including $20-per-hour wage cuts for new nursing graduates and the elimination of paid sick days.

Ann Gaebler, a neonatal intensive care nurse at Sutter’s Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley, said that eliminating paid sick leave is akin to forcing nurses to work while sick—a dangerous prospect in the nursing world.

“I work with premature infants who come into this world immuno-comprised,” Gaebler said. “Unlike some people, we cannot go to work with a tickle in our throat, or a hint of a sniffle, or even a cold sore. The exposure of that to our infants could be devastating to them.”

Alta Bates’ spokesperson, Carolyn Kemp, declined to comment on any specific proposals on the table, except to deny that the hospital would make anyone work while sick. Such allegations, she said, are simply “red herrings” intended to divert the public’s attention from the fact that nurses are actually “very richly compensated.”

A new contract isn’t the only matter the striking nurses are worried about. For the last four years, Bay Area Sutter nurses have protested what they say is the company’s attempts to close hospitals in low-income areas, while shifting profitable services to more affluent neighborhoods.

“Sutter has for some time been a clear example of what happened when you have healthcare converted into a Wall Street-type of business instead of a community service,” Idelson said.

Kaiser successfully negotiated a contract with nurses earlier this year, but now wants to cut healthcare coverage and retirement benefits for social workers, therapists, speech pathologist and other employees. Despite securing their own contract, thousands of Kaiser nurses nevertheless joined the strike in sympathy with their colleagues.

“I’m supporting these workers because when we renegotiate our contract, this will be on the table for us,” said Michelle Andres, a registered nurse at Kaiser Oakland. “For me, it’s important not to stand by while one union gets steamrolled by employers.”

“We’re trying to stand up for health care and retirement so our coworkers can retire with dignity,” added Deirdre Power, also a nurse at Kaiser Oakland.

Hospitals administration emphasized that the strike did not affect patient care, as the nurses gave each facility a 10-day notice so that replacement nurses could be found and elective surgeries could be postponed, as needed.

“This is basically the third nurse strike at our hospital, so we have some pretty good systems in place for handling strikes,” said Shibata, who brought in about 130 temporary nurses for the occasion. “It’s business as usual,” she said.

Southern California nurses began striking on Wednesday and plan to continue through Friday, while strikes in the Bay Area lasted just one day. Many nurses won’t be heading back to work too soon, however, as some hospitals plan to “lock out” striking nurses for five days, in order to fulfill contracts with their temporary replacement nurses.

In the meantime, union bargaining committees will continue negotiating their own contracts with the hospitals, though there’s no telling how protracted that process will be. Until contracts are reached, strikes remain an imminent possibility.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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