Nurses on the picket line outside Alta Bates hospital in Berkeley on Wednesday May 22. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Two separate groups of medical staff have gone out on strike in Berkeley.

For the ninth time in two years, a significant number of Sutter Health nurses, including many who work at Alta Bates in Berkeley, have walked out, this time for seven days, protesting what they say are highly unreasonable contract demands by their employer, as well as what they see are its attempt to “bust the union.”

Meanwhile, AFSCME’s patient care and service workers at five UC medical centers, as well as the UC Berkeley Student Health Center, went on a two-day strike yesterday. Health care professionals who are members of UPTE-CWA agreed to go on a one-day sympathy strike yesterday to show their support for their AFSCME colleagues.

Nurses began the 7-day strike at five East Bay Sutter hospitals on Friday May 16, and expect to return to work on Friday this week. The walkout affects more than 3,100 registered nurses (RNs) as well as respiratory, X-ray and other technicians, at Alta Bates Summit facilities in Berkeley and Oakland, Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley, and Sutter Delta in Antioch, according to the the California Nurses Association/National Nurses United.

Sympathy strike UC
Staffers outside UC Berkeley’s Tang Center in Berkeley were on strike on Tuesday May 21 to show their support for AFSCME patient care worker strikers. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel
Staffers outside UC Berkeley’s Tang Center in Berkeley were on strike on Tuesday May 21 to show their support for AFSCME patient care worker strikers. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

Robert Lieber, an RN at Alta Bates, said there has been no meaningful progress on nurses’ contract negotiations since July 2011, six months after the unions began to meet with Sutter at the bargaining table. “We have not had a contract for three years,” he said Wednesday on the picket line on Ashby Avenue outside Alta Bates.

Lieber, who used to be mayor of Albany, says the 100 take-aways that Sutter wants to impose, including removing sick pay and seniority pay for nurses, are unacceptable. He says the health group is also putting the community at risk by closing what it says are unprofitable units, such as adolescent psychiatry and cardiac care.

“Even if that’s true it’s the hospital’s duty to do its job. They are putting profits above people. They are making egregious amounts of money on the back of the community.”

The striking nurses claim Sutter has plenty of money and does not need to make cuts. National Nurses United states Sutter has accumulated nearly $4.2 billion in profits since 2005, that it has the highest net patient revenue per employees among U.S. hospital systems, and that Sutter paid 28 top executives more than $1 million in compensation, “by far the most lavish spending on executives among all California hospital systems.” Sutter East Bay Region President David Bradley’s 2011 compensation exceeded $1.6 million, they say in an online statement.

Ann Gaebler, a RN who has worked for 32 years in the neo-natal intensive care unit at Alba Bates and has been at the negotiating table with Sutter, says she doesn’t begrudge Bradley his pay packet, but she says it sends a clear message. When they have those sorts of salaries but are making cuts everywhere and asking nurses to take cuts it looks like they are just in it for the money, she said.

Sutter Health said it is disappointed with the unions’ decisions to ask employees to walk out on patients. In a statement on its website it wrote: “It is unclear what the union hopes to accomplish through this strike since the past walkouts have brought us no closer to agreement.” Sutter also published details of the pay and benefits of full-time nurses who work at its hospitals with CNA contracts: they say such a nurse “earns an average of $137,000 per year (based on 2012 W2 data); receives a generous employer paid pension; gets up to 40 paid days off annually; and has the option of 100% employer paid health insurance, or low-cost benefits.”

RN Eric Koch said he believed Sutter was trying to bust the unions and cited cases at other hospitals, including Mills Peninsula and Novato, where Sutter has agreed to settlements. He said nurses at Alta Bates, where he has worked in the telemetry unit since 1991, are often not able to take lunch or restroom breaks, and that Sutter is not adhering to the state-mandated nurses-patient ratios.

“The hospital continually runs us short,” he said.

Sutter Health estimates 56% of Alta Bates and Herrick nurses were out on strike on May 17, and 44% at its Summit campus in Oakland.

Sutter Health released the following statement in response to a call for comment:

“We’re fortunate that a number of RNs have chosen to cross the picket line and come to work. On the first day of the strike more than half of those scheduled showed up at the Summit Campus of Alta Bates Summit.

“We were well-prepared for this nurses strike. While we are deeply disappointed with the unions’ decisions to ask employees to walk out on patients, this is the ninth strike CNA has called against some of our medical centers in less than two years. We have to reduce costs to make ourselves more affordable. We have tremendous respect for and value our registered nurses and compensate them accordingly. In fact, the average salary of a Sutter Health nurse is $137,000 per year (full time at more than $65/hour) with fully paid health insurance, a rich retirement package, education and training and generous vacation benefits.”

Meanwhile, across town from Alta Bates, at UC Berkeley’s Tang Center which provides health care services, UPTA members were striking yesterday in sympathy for 13,000 AFSCME patient care workers who are on a two-day walk-out. University of California management failed to win a sought-after injunction against the strike planned by AFSCME to demand improvements to patient safety, fair pay and retirement security. A Sacramento judge denied UC’s argument regarding its vast need for personnel during the strike, and affirmed the right of most workers to strike.

Jelger Kalmijn, President of UPTE, and a staff research associate at UCSD, said the AFSCME strikers were concerned about patient care as it related to adequate staffing. He said UC is having increasing problems recruiting and retaining quality staff because they are proposing making drastic cuts to the staff pensions. “This was one of the main reasons people come to UC,” he said. “It ‘s like a revolving door now.”

Nurses at Alta Bates, other Bay Area hospitals  on strike [11.20.12] 
Alta Bates nurses go on strike, part of Sutter-wide protest [07.03.12]
Sutter Health nurses strike at Alta Bates, 10 other hospitals [06.13.12]
On May Day nurses and Cal employees take to streets [05.01.12]
Nurses’ strike draws cheers and honking horns [09.22.11]

This story was updated at 3:05 p.m. to incorporate a short statement from Sutter Health in response to our call for comments.

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Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...