Strike-happy nurses union at it again

Registered nurses at 11 Sutter Health hospitals in the Bay Area are scheduled to vote this week and next on whether to authorize a third strike in recent months against Sutter, the California Nurses Association/National Nurses Organizing Committee said Wednesday.

The Oakland-based nurses' union cited a "hostile" bargaining attitude by Sacramento-based Sutter, which has long tangled with CNA and the Service Employees International Union over union representation and other issues. The union said 300 nurses at the Sutter Solano Medical Center in Vallejo voted first, and "overwhelmingly" approved authorizing the bargaining team to call a strike of up to 10 days.

Previous strikes in October and December lasted two days each, although some Sutter hospitals locked out striking nurses for an additional three days and hired temporary replacements.

"The voting ends March 7 and we would need to give a 10-day notice" to strike, said union spokesman Shum Preston. He said most of the hospitals' two-year contracts with CNA expired last June.

Sutter spokeswoman Karen Garner went on the offensive, saying the union "has misleadingly claimed" its strikes are over staffing, patient care or retirement benefits. Sutter hospitals' contract proposals "meet and, in most cases, exceed what CNA has agreed to with other hospitals in these areas," she said, adding that the most significant difference between Sutter hospitals' proposals and contracts with other hospitals "is the lack of systemwide union organizing language at Sutter." In addition, Garner argued that CNA's leaders are attempting to increase union membership at Sutter to "collect a $4 million windfall" in new dues money, resulting in a total of $11 million in annual dues from Sutter nurses.

Further, she said, "in new Sutter-affiliated facilities that are opened within 30 to 50 miles of any other Sutter Health facility, the union wants to take away the right of nurses to vote for themselves whether or not to be represented by CNA."

Kevin McCormack, a spokesman for California Pacific Medical Center and St. Luke's Hospital in San Francisco, said, "It's disappointing that CNA is going this route again -- thinking of strikes rather than talks," or instead of giving nurses a chance to vote on the hospitals' existing offers.

Hospitals potentially affected by a strike vote include St. Luke's and California Pacific Medical Center, San Leandro Hospital, Alta Bates-Summit Medical Center in Berkeley and Oakland, Burlingame's Peninsula Medical Center, Castro Valley's Eden Medical Center, Antioch's Sutter Delta Medical Center, Sutter Solano, Sutter Medical Center of Santa Rosa, Marin General Hospital in Greenbrae, and Novato Community Hospital.

CNA said the possible walkouts focus on "serious issues of patient safety and patient care," along with health benefits for nurses. The union represents 5,000 RNs at Sutter's Bay Area hospitals, and about 80,000 nationwide.

Sutter has come under fire recently for problems involving staffing when RNs are on what the union calls "legally mandated meal, rest or bathroom breaks." CNA is also concerned about Sutter's plans to close acute-care facilities at St. Luke's and Sutter Santa Rosa Medical Center, as well as reported plans to do the same at San Leandro Hospital, which is affiliated with Sutter's Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley. In addition, the union says, Sutter has declined to "agree to fair settlements" on issues such as health benefits, retiree health benefits and pensions.

CNA said it's proposed that Sutter agree to include specific RN-to-patient staffing ratios in the new contracts, to cap the number of hours that charge nurses are used for break relief, and to assign all patients to an RN.


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