“Patients before profits,” reads one of the signs on the picket line of registered nurses who belong to the National Union of Healthcare Workers (NUHW). RNs who belong to NUHW began a three-day strike on September 20 to protest unfair labor practices that threaten patient care at Kaiser-Permanente, California’s largest health care provider.
“It’s upsetting to us to see patient’s suffering because we don’t have staff we need to provide services patients need and deserve,” said Jim Clifford, a mental health therapist at Kaiser-Permanente in San Diego and a NUHW member.
NUHW, which represents registered nurses and other health care workers at Kaiser-Permanente, and the company have been negotiating a new contract since May 2010. NUHW members want Kaiser to hire more staff. Kaiser wants to maintain current staffing levels and cut health care and pension benefits.
On Thursday in a show of solidarity, NUHW was joined by the National Nurses Union, the union for stationary engineers, and Northern California NUHW in a one-day sympathy strike.
National Nurses Union has been waging a similar fight for improved patient care at Sutter Health hospitals in Northern and Central California. On Thursday, 23,000 registered nurses who belong to NNU walked off the job to support Kaiser workers and to press Sutter Health to sign a fair contract.
Sutter is seeking a long list of contract concessions that would restrict the ability of nurses to advocate for patient care. At a rally at Sutter’s Alta Bates campus in Berkeley, DeAnn McEwen, co-president of the California Nurses Association told the crowd, “When nurses are on the outside, there’s something wrong on the inside. She called Sutter’s concession demands, “Drastic, unwarranted, and unconscionable. They’re harming patients and we’re standing in the gap.”
Among other things, Sutter is demanding that charge nurses be subject to dismissal when they advocate for patient care and that bedside nurses be barred from helping to determine staffing needs based on individual patient illness and need. Sutter also wants to eliminate sick pay for RNs, reduce their pension and health care benefits and cut pay for newly hired RNs by as much as $20 an hour.
Kaiser and Sutter are demanding concessions despite the fact that both are extremely profitable operations. Sutter profits since 2005 are nearly $4 billion. It’s 20 top executives have annual salaries of between $3 million and $1 million a year.
Kaiser, which is supposed to be a non-profit hospital, has recorded profits of $5.7 billion since 2009.
Both NUHW and NNU say that these two health care corporations have made their profits by cutting jobs and services. “In order for Kaiser to make money, they’re under-staffing services,” said Emily Ryan, a psychiatric social worker a Kaiser Sacramento and a NUHW members. “And they are providing substandard care to protect the bottom line.”
NNU says that in recent years Sutter has cut many patient services including, ending breast exams for women with disabilities, cutting psychiatric services, closing pediatric care units, and eliminating acute rehabilitation, dialysis, and skilled nursing services at some of its hospitals. It also cut services by two-thirds at its Mission District hospital in San Francisco.
Workers who joined the solidarity strike in Northern California returned to work on Friday. In Southern California, strikers will return on Saturday. But that’s not the end of the struggle for better patient care. On September 21 and 22, 1,300 social workers, therapists, health educators, dietitians, speech pathologists and audiologists, who belong to NUHW will engage in a two-day strike.
“Our primary goal is to facilitate change that makes patient care better,” Ryan said.