Nurses will strike at seven East Bay hospitals affiliated with Sutter Health on Thursday
Silicon Valley Mercury News, 10/31/12
By Sandy Kleffman, Bay Area News Group
Mention nurses in the Bay Area these days and two images come to mind: a caring, nurturing professional at a patient's bedside, and a perturbed, bullhorn carrying protester walking a picket line.
By one estimate, the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United has called more than 70 strikes at the state's hospitals in the past two years.
Its members will walk off the job again Thursday, waging a one-day strike against seven East Bay hospitals affiliated with Sutter Health as part of an 18-month-long attempt to negotiate a new contract.
The powerful union, when it isn't striking, has held numerous informational pickets at hospitals in the South Bay and East Bay on disputes involving wages and cutbacks that it claims will hinder patient care.
In mid-October, although the union has a contract with Kaiser Permanente, its members walked a picket line at Kaiser Oakland seeking increased staffing and more help with lifting patients.
The aggressive activity stands in sharp contrast to a decline in strikes across the country as many other unions struggle to maintain a foothold during tough economic times.
The thriving CNA, with 80,000 members, said it does not plan to back down.
"It's not our preference to strike, but the hospital employers have really given us no choice," said Fernando Losada, the union's collective bargaining director in California. "The hospital industry as a whole is trying to extract concessions from the nurses, and this is at a time of great wealth for many of the hospital chains."
Hospital leaders maintain the nurses are not willing to accept the type of benefit cuts and concessions that have become standard in other industries.
"Their demands are not in line with the reality of the world we all live in," said Jan Emerson-Shea, vice president of external affairs for the California Hospital Association.
Perhaps nowhere has a CNA fight generated more vitriol than in its battle against Sutter Health. Thursday will mark the sixth time since September 2011 the union has gone on strike at Sutter facilities in the Bay Area.
Up to 3,200 registered nurses will walk out beginning at 7 a.m. at three Alta Bates Summit Medical Center facilities in Oakland and Berkeley, Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley, San Leandro Hospital, Sutter Delta in Antioch, and Sutter Solano in Vallejo.
The hospitals will remain open and are bringing in replacement nurses on five-day contracts, so the striking nurses will not be allowed to return to work until 7 a.m. Tuesday.
Union leaders maintain Sutter does not need to implement the cutbacks it is seeking.
"They're supposed to be a nonprofit company, but they have surplus revenues in the hundreds of millions annually," Losada said. He noted that Sutter has proposed more than 100 cuts in services at its hospitals. It also is seeking contract takeaways, including reducing some paid leave and requiring nurses to pay a bigger share of their health premiums.
The union argues that Sutter is one of the 10 wealthiest hospital chains in the United States with $4.2 billion in profits since 2005, and with 28 of its top executives earning more than $1 million each in compensation.
"And they're saying that I'm overcompensated and need to cut back?" said Rochelle Pardue-Okimoto, a registered nurse who has walked the picket line at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley. "The people at the top are not making any kind of sacrifice."
Sutter leaders counter that earnings get reinvested into new programs and facilities. The health system is spending nearly $1 billion to replace aging facilities to meet the state's seismic requirements, said communications director Karen Garner.
She also noted that Medicare is expected to reduce reimbursement to Sutter by $2 billion over the next decade.
The union is "demanding new, costly benefits -- such as double-digit wage increases and free health care for life -- which will increase costs at our hospitals by tens of millions of dollars each year," Garner said. "Our obligation is to take care of both our nurses and our patients."
CNA has not always had a reputation for aggressiveness. A decade ago, "they were primarily known for being a professional association and doing more quiet collective bargaining," said Katie Quan, associate chairwoman of the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education.
But a few years ago, the union, led by former Teamsters organizer Rose Ann DeMoro, began to win strong compensation packages. A nursing shortage combined with growth in the health care industry made the union quest for higher wages easier.
Today, a full-time registered nurse at Sutter hospitals earns about $136,000 annually, and most have an option for health benefits that are fully paid by the employer, according to the company. Many full-time nurses are also eligible for an $84,000 annual pension for life.
But now, instead of a nursing shortage, many consider the Bay Area to have a slight surplus of nurses.
"In that environment, you're not going to see wage growth," said Joanne Spetz, a professor at UC San Francisco's Institute for Health Policy Studies. "If anything, you're going to see a tendency toward wages not keeping pace with inflation. So what the unions are bargaining for is really to try to keep their ground."
Sandy Kleffman covers health. Contact her at 510-293-2478. Follow her at Twitter.com/skleffman.
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Who: Up to 3,200 registered nurses at Sutter Health
When: Beginning at 7 a.m. Thursday
Where: Three Alta Bates Summit Medical Center facilities in Oakland and Berkeley, Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley, San Leandro Hospital, Sutter Delta in Antioch, and Sutter Solano in Vallejo.
Impact: the hospitals are hiring replacement nurses and will remain open.