Sutter nurses back on picket line

Deborah Goldsmith and Poly Manoli report from the Bay Area on a 10-day strike by the California Nurses Association.

OAKLAND--Some 4,000 members of the California Nurses Association (CNA) began a 10-day strike against the Sutter Health network at eight Bay Area facilities on March 20 over serious issues of patient care, health care for nurses and medical service redlining.

Sutter, a Northern California non-profit health care network, has been struck by RNs twice already--two strikes in October and December, lasting two days each--over pensions, inadequate staffing and erosion of services.

This 10-day strike brings the issue of patient safety and care to the forefront of the battle. At issue is management's refusal to schedule RNs to care for patients when nurses are on legally mandated meal or rest breaks. Such scheduling gaps leave patients unattended and at risk.

"This is a battle of David against Goliath," said a nurse who asked to remain anonymous. "But we have to stand up for what's right. Patients' health care is at the core of our strike."

What you can do

To find out more about the issues in the Sutter Health strike and how you can support striking nurses, go to the California Nurses Association Web site.

Nurses are also concerned about establishing a decent health care plan for retirees. Sutter is refusing to agree to fair settlements on issues of health care, retiree health care and pensions. "We are not asking for much," said a nurse on the picket line at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley. "What we want is after 25 years of service to this institution to be able to afford a decent health care plan."

One major demand centers around safe lifting policies and the return of special lift teams to move patients, which prevents both patient and nurse injuries. While Kaiser Permanente instituted lift teams at all 18 of its Northern California hospitals, Alta Bates Summit nurses say without lift teams, they repeatedly experience neck, back and rotator cuff injuries.

Below-standard compensation adds to this problem. An older nurse said they train younger ones and watch them leave, commenting, "We stay and then keep getting injured."

Before the strike began, the CNA informed Sutter Health and its affiliates that they would bargain in one location without preconditions. But Sutter demanded that the CNA withdraw strike notices before bargaining and that it couldn't find a way to bring together a bargaining team. Meanwhile, Sutter brought scab temporary nurses to California.

The strike is an important test of strength for the CNA, a militant union with a record of going on the offensive against both employers and politicians. In 2005, the CNA organized a fierce campaign against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's attacks on the union, challenging him at fundraisers and public appearances, and helped defeat his regressive ballot propositions.

In contrast to the Democratic Party presidential candidates' proposals maintaining our overpriced health insurance system, the CNA today sponsors bills in the California state senate for true, low-cost single-payer health care.

This strike is of special importance in a period of spiraling economic crisis, which politicians will try to use as an excuse to attack public-sector spending. In California, Schwarzenegger's proposed spending cuts include $71 million in basic medical care for low-income families in San Francisco and Alameda County (Oakland) alone.

As Eric Koch, a nurse at Alta Bates Summit, put it, "Our fight is reflective of everybody's fight. It's about working with dignity, living with dignity and retiring with dignity."