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The Big One Is Coming: California Nurses Organize Largest Nurses' Strike in U.S. History

Pent up frustrations from more than 23,000 registered nurses at 34 Northern and Central California hospitals will explode to the surface in a one-day strike on September 22.

The sudden release of stored energy could easily describe earthquakes, of which we are very familiar in California. But this week, tremors of a different sort will shake the state from north to south.

The sudden release of pent up frustrations from more than 23,000 registered nurses at 34 Northern and Central California hospitals will explode to the surface in a one-day strike on Thursday, September 22.

The work stoppage affects two of California’s largest and most profitable hospital chains, Sutter Health and Kaiser Permanente, as well as Children’s Hospital Oakland.

“The strike at Sutter comes after nine months of failed negotiations,” Deborah Burger, R.N., told me. Burger is president of National Nurses United and co-president of its affiliate, the California Nurses Association.

“We staunchly refuse to be silenced on patient-care protections,” added Sharon Tobin, writing in a CNA press statement. Tobin is a 24-year R.N. at Sutter Mills-Peninsula in Burlingame, Calif. “A common theme throughout management’s proposals is removing our presence on committees that address important patient-care issues and nursing practices.

“Sutter doesn’t want to hear about anything that might cut into their huge profits.”

True to form, just as nurse Tobin suggested, Sutter Health claims that “the union’s proposals are out of touch. Demands like these would add tens of millions in extra costs for patients.”

“We listen to this all the time in bargaining,” Burger responded. “So, we already know Sutter is serious about reductions to patient care and cuts to employee pensions and health coverage.

“And, the same goes for Kaiser.

“For example, 1,400 Kaiser pharmacists, represented by the Guild for Professional Pharmacists, just got a contract that, we strongly believe, contains significant concessions we would not accept.”

In fact, the Guild, an independent union, reports on its website changes to their medical coverage and admits that their pensions are now “frozen.” In other words, previously accrued benefits remain but the amount will never grow because Kaiser will no longer make contributions.

Guild vice president Howard Hertz commented that “the benefit changes Kaiser is trying to impose punish people for their past loyalty to Kaiser … they are not just wrong, but immoral.”

Kaiser’s stance infuriates nurses as well, especially when threats to Social Security and Medicare grow daily.

The same contentious bargaining has played out in Kaiser negotiations with the National Union of Healthcare Workers over the last year. NUHW president Sal Rosselli explained the issues to me:

Kaiser has made over $5.7 billion in profits over the last two and a half years, and its executives receive millions of dollars in compensation and as many as eight separate pension plans each. There's no economic justification for Kaiser's insistence on cutting healthcare and retirement benefits for thousands of caregivers.

There's even less justification for Kaiser's refusal to provide nurses, social workers and mental health professionals with the staff they need to provide Kaiser patients with safe and timely access to care.

Kaiser psychiatric social worker David Mallon, an NUHW negotiating committee member, witnesses these problems each day. “For decades, the clinicians at Kaiser have asked for more staff,” he says. “But there has been no fundamental change over the years in the attitude of the financial managers and principal executives at Kaiser: 'Do more with less, and damned be the patients who don't get better with what we offer.' ”

The unholy juxtaposition of record profits and draconian cuts has jolted employees into organizing for September 22, which is expecting to be the largest Kaiser strike and the largest nurses’ strike in U.S. history.

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