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SF nurses gear up to fight understaffing

By Jessie Muldoon | December 17, 2004 | Page 11

OAKLAND, Calif.--Hospital workers and nurses at Sutter Health returned to work December 6 following a one-day strike and a subsequent lockout.

The five-day lockout of 7,000 workers, members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Locals 250 and 707 and the California Nurses Association (CNA) was retaliation for the December 2 strike. SEIU--which is fighting for a new contract--and the CNA picketed and rallied throughout the duration of the lockout.

Unfortunately, the looming threat of the lockout undermined some workers' confidence. At Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, only about 60 percent of the union workers struck.

The key issue is patient care and understaffing, which affects the quality of health care. According to a law pushed by the CNA, the state of California must implement a 1-to-5 nurse-to-patient ratio as of January 1, 2005--compared to the current ratio of 1-to-6.

But in November, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger unilaterally postponed implementing the law and launched a media blitz opposing it as too costly. Schwarzenegger then insulted health care workers at a high-priced fundraiser in front of 10,000 people at the California Governor's Conference on Women and Children. When CNA members unfurled a banner during the governor's speech and chanted, Schwarzenegger dismissed them as "special interests."

Now the nurses' union is pursuing a lawsuit to force the governor to implement the staffing law.

As in the case of the hotels in San Francisco, locking out union workers is a powerful fear tactic that management is more than willing to employ.

However, a positive development that has come out of this struggle is a new willingness of SEIU and CNA to work together. CNA and SEIU have had numerous conflicts over the course of a decade regarding jurisdiction and other issues. At the height of the dispute, each union bashed the other in their publications and even refused to honor picket lines.

The thaw in the relationship is an important step for the unions' ability to take on the hospital chains. But the hospital bosses are raising the stakes. The unions--if they are going to pose a real challenge--will have to rise to the occasion.

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