CNA takes on Sutter's greed

NURSES AT Summit Medical Center in Oakland walked the picket lines as part of a one-day strike on June 13. The action was the fourth in a series of one-day strikes during the past year due to stalled negotiations over a number of concessions demanded by Sutter Health hospitals around the Bay Area.

Sutter Health has raked in a whopping $4.2 billion in profits since 2005, yet Sutter executives want to squeeze even more out of their workers. Additional out-of-pocket expenses for health care, a two-tier wage scale that would pay new hires $18 an hour less than current nurses, and, audaciously, the elimination of paid sick leave are among the givebacks Sutter hospitals have been asking for.

In addition to these economic concessions, the company expects nurses to agree to a number of reductions in working standards that would diminish their capacity to advocate for patients.

The nurses' response? "When Summit says give back, we say fight back!" was a popular chant on the spirited picket line.

The nurses are represented by the California Nurses Association (CNA). They know this struggle is as much about protecting their patients as it is defending their own standard of living. Sutter hospitals have also been cutting services to the communities they serve. According to a CNA press release, these cuts to social services include:

-- End breast cancer screening for women with disabilities and most bone marrow transplant services for cancer patients at Alta Bates Summit in Oakland and Berkeley.

-- Close specialized pediatric care, acute rehabilitation, dialysis, and skilled nursing care services at Mills and Peninsula hospitals in Burlingame and San Mateo.

-- Close acute rehabilitation services, skilled nursing care, and psychiatric services, and substantially downgrade nursery care for sick children at Eden Hospital in Castro Valley.

-- Close a birthing center at Sutter Auburn Faith, forcing new mothers and families to travel up to 100 miles for obstetrics care.

Meanwhile, Sutter is paying 21 top executives salaries of more $1 million a year, some of whom have received raises of up to 206 percent in the past four years. The CEO himself received a 183 percent pay increase over five years.

In the words of Leslie Blanchard, one of the striking nurses:

Sutter is not good for patients. They said in the Sacramento Bee that the reason top executives get highly paid is to attract talent. Well, the same is true of nurses. Delivering patient care is complicated; it's much more involved than 10 or 20 years ago. You need qualified nurses and you need to treat them well.

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AT AN afternoon rally that drew a crowd of 100 nurses and supporters, Martha Kuhl, a nurse and CNA official, accused Sutter of taking advantage of the economic climate to attack unions and impose austerity.

"We are a line of defense," Kuhl said. "We are part of a more important struggle, and remember, we can win if workers stick together." She reminded the crowd that the CNA along with National Nurses United (NNU) has been calling for a "Robin Hood" tax on financial transactions that could raise tens of billions each year in the U.S. for health care, jobs and education.

The highlight of the campaign so far was a 3,000-strong march during the NATO summit in Chicago last month, and it will continue locally with a rally in San Francisco on Tuesday, June 19, at JP Morgan Chase.

"The real solution to all this of course is Medicare for all," added Kuhl. To that end, the CNA, the NNU and the Campaign for a Healthy California are jointly organizing a Medicare For All Bus Tour that departs June 19 and will visit 20 California cities on July 13.

Nurses' morale remains high even though the fight against Sutter has been dragging on for more than a year. "If you want to know how long we'll be out here, we'll be out here until we get a contract," said nurse Millie Borland. "This is the biggest line I've seen so far. We are building momentum."

Recently, two Northern California hospitals in the Sutter chain have backed down by taking concessions off the table. Those facilities now have contracts and serve as a beacon for those still in the battle at Summit and other area hospitals.