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Two-day strike by California nurses

October 19, 2007 | Page 11

RACHEL MORGAIN and ROGER DYER report on a fight by the California Nurses Association.

SAN FRANCISCO--More than 5,000 members of the California Nurses Association went on a two-day strike against 15 Northern California hospitals starting October 10. Half a dozen hospitals then locked out nurses until October 15 in an effort to intimidate the union.

At issue in the CNA fight are pensions, employee health care, erosion of services and inadequate staffing. The CNA is also seeking contract language that will help the union organize unorganized workers at other facilities of Sutter Health, which operates all but two of the hospitals that the CNA struck.

"Sutter has refused to listen to the concerns of their nurses," said union spokesperson Chuck Idelson. Many nurses "can't even take breaks a significant percentage of the time because of inadequate staffing."

Sutter is a non-profit network of hospitals that brought in nearly $600 million in net income last year alone.

The strike was an important test of strength for the CNA, one of the few unions to go on the offensive against both employers and politicians recently. The CNA worked with filmmaker Michael Moore since the release of his documentary Sicko to publicize the health care crisis in the U.S. and create political pressure and grassroots organizing for a single-payer system.

During the strike, 80 to 100 nurses and supporters turned out outside San Francisco's St. Luke's Hospital (part of the California Pacific Medical Center) for a spirited midday rally. Union speakers took a militant tone and addressed the issue of patient care, which Sutter is undermining with its strong-arm tactics in dealing with staff.

Jane Sandoval, who has worked as a registered nurse (RN) at. St Luke's for 22 years, spoke of the Sutter master plan to "change operations"--which is corporate-speak for hospital closures and layoffs.

At St. Luke's, this will mean changing from an acute care facility to a clinic. "We don't need another clinic, we need a hospital," said Michael Lyon, of the Grey Panthers. Lyon explained how Sutter promised "on a stack of Bibles" at the beginning of the process that it wouldn't close anything--yet the first action it took was to shut down the St. Luke's Psychiatric Ward in the Mission District.

Lyon and many others saw this as an anti-worker measure that would disproportionately affect the Mission's largely Latino population.

Joining nurses on the speakers' platform were a number of elected officials, including state Sens. Carole Migden and Leland Yee, state Reps. Fiona Ma and Mark Leno. Local San Francisco supervisors Ross Mirkarimi and Tom Ammiano were all present.

The politicians all affirmed the value of the work that CNA nurses perform and sided with the nurses in spirit, but none made any pledge to take concrete steps to aid the nurses in their fight.

Local activists from Mission Anti-Displacement Coalition (MADC), Grey Panthers and Senior Action Network also spoke. "There is solidarity with you in the Mission," said Eric Casada of MADC. "Our struggle is your struggle!" Casada led a chant of "¡Sí, se puede!" ("Yes, we can!") as he left the podium.

Several nurses in the crowd talked about their experience of being understaffed, overworked and shorted on benefits. One RN, a 26-year veteran with CNA, explained that her health care premium tripled overnight from $49 to $155 in the midst of the last contract.

Sutter made that decision unilaterally. Although that particular violation of the contract is being challenged in court, Sutter wants language in this contract that will allow it to make such one-sided decisions at will.

Other RNs talked about how understaffing means that nurses are often forced to lift patients on their own. On a given shift, it's not unusual to have three RNs missing work due to back injuries. "It's not enough to care for the patients inside," Sandoval announced. "We will take it to the streets. We will take it to Sacramento, and if necessary, we will take it to D.C."

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