23,000 California Nurses to Strike on September 22

September 21, 2011

September 21, 2011 — Roughly 23,000 members of the California Nurses Association (CNA) plan to be no-shows on September 22 at several dozen hospitals in what organizers call the largest nurses' strike in the nation's history.

The 1-day strike comes amid negotiations between the CNA and 8 individual hospitals operated by nonprofit Sutter Health in northern California that have run aground largely on 2 rocky economic issues for all Americans: healthcare coverage and retirement benefits.

The CNA belongs to an aggressive "super union" with close to 160,000 members called National Nurses United. Its avowed goal is to unionize every registered nurse in the United States. In June 2010, its affiliate in Minnesota organized a 1-day strike by 12,000 nurses in the Twin Cities over wages, pension benefits, and staffing levels. At the time, that walk-off was billed as the biggest nurses' strike ever.

The scheduled California strike affects not only 8 Sutter hospitals, some with multiple campuses, but also 22 Kaiser Permanente hospitals in northern California, as well as Children's Hospital Oakland. The latter hospital is also embroiled in contract negotiations with the CNA, but the Kaiser facilities are not. The Kaiser nurses are instead striking out of sympathy with Kaiser employees belonging to the National Union of Healthcare Workers, whose members include mental health professionals, audiologists, and speech pathologists, in addition to registered nurses. Some 2500 of these National Union of Healthcare Workers members, currently locked in contract talks, began 2-day and 3-day strikes today at Kaiser facilities in southern California. Another 1500 NUWH members employed by Kaiser in northern California will engage in a 1-day walk-off tomorrow.

CNA nurses are scheduled to begin walking picket lines at 7 am tomorrow around the hospitals being struck. The picket lines will come down at 7 am the next day.

Sutter Health, Kaiser Permanente, and Children's Hospital Oakland have assured the public that they will continue to deliver top-notch care during the 1-day strike. That translates into hiring temporary replacement nurses.

Unrealistic Demands? Or a Rich, Stingy Employer?

The sticking points in the talks between the CNA and Sutter vary hospital by hospital, as each one contracts separately with its nurses. Nevertheless, several themes have emerged: The union contends that the hospitals are trying to reduce nurses' benefits, and the hospitals say that nurses are making unreasonable economic demands.

The union, for example, claims that Sutter hospitals want to eliminate or sharply reduce retiree healthcare coverage. The way Sutter sees it, the nurses are asking for free healthcare after they retire.

"The union is pushing unrealistic proposals that will increase the cost of healthcare," Sutter Health communications director Karen Garner told Medscape Medical News.

The term "free healthcare" is misleading, however. Joe Lindsay, director of the CNA's Sutter division, said that some Sutter facilities that once paid healthcare insurance premiums in full for retired nurses now want retirees to pick up part of the cost. Otherwise, they are responsible for copays and deductibles similar to others with insurance.

Businesses in every sector of the economy have been shifting more of their healthcare costs to employees and retirees, so what Sutter wants to do is not startling. When asked why nurses should be exempt from this cost-shifting, Lindsay told Medscape Medical News that the CNA and National Nurses United want unhindered access to healthcare for every American in the form of a single-payer system, which could happen, for example, if Medicare coverage is extended to all citizens.

Pensions represent another bone of contention. Sutter claims that the CNA wants pensions doubled at some hospitals, even though the average full-time nurse at Sutter already can retire at $84,000 a year.

"We're committed to offering our nurses competitive wages and benefits," said Garner, adding that the average full-time Sutter nurse under a CNA contract earns $136,000 a year.

Lindsay said the union is not seeking doubled pensions, and that Sutter is overstating what retirees receive.

The CNA repeatedly emphasizes that Sutter Health can afford to take care of its nurses, pointing to its reported income of roughly $900 million in 2010. It also chastises the system for "abandoning" certain communities by shutting down or curtailing less-profitable services at its hospitals. Garner said Sutter has simply altered its services in response to changing demographics.

The tit-for-tat continues on the subject of quality of care. The CNA portrays Sutter as trying to muzzle nurses who attempt to advocate for patients. In turn, Garner said that the union "has rejected almost every proposal that helps us deliver services more efficiently and effectively."


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