Calif. nurses union OKs massive strike

Thousands of registered nurses at 10 Bay Area hospitals — including two on the Peninsula — announced Monday that they are going ahead with a 10-day strike later this month. The walkout, scheduled to begin March 21, will affect 4,000 nurses at 10 health care centers affiliated with Sutter Health, a network of hospitals.

In San Mateo County, up to 700 nurses represented by the California Nurses Association union are expected to be part of the walkout. Locally, the nurses have approved the strike at Peninsula Medical Center in Burlingame and Mills Health Center in San Mateo.

The nurses voted overwhelmingly last week to give their union the OK to call a strike. On Monday, the union gave the 10 hospital facilities a required 10-day notice of the strike.

Officials at Mills Peninsula Health Services, which operates Peninsula Medical Center and Mills Health Center, said it will be business as usual at the health care facilities during the strike.

We anticipate running operations as usual," said Dolores Gomez, chief nursing executive at Mills Peninsula Health Services. "We'll get some of the same replacement nurses back."

Union and management have been unable to reach an agreement since contract negotiations began last May. The result has been two previous strikes, each lasting two days, in October and December. No new negotiations are scheduled.

Gomez said she did not know the cost of keeping the hospitals open with replacement workers. It depends on how many CNA nurses cross the picket lines and come to work, she noted. Nearly 40 percent crossed the lines in the last strike, Gomez said. CNA officials said it was under 10 percent.

The nurses and their union representatives say the dispute is about issues of patient care, staffing and their own health and retirement benefits. Salaries are not an issue.

The nurses complain that they don't have enough staffing to help cover their meal and regular breaks. They also say that there is not enough help to lift patients so nurses can avoid back injuries.

"Sutter cannot expect RNs to sit idly by and watch the ongoing problems with patient care and safety at our hospitals," said Sharon Tobin, a registered nurse at Peninsula Medical Center. "When there are not enough nurses, patients are put at risk, period."

Tobin said the nurses don't want a strike, but added that their "ethical obligation as patient advocates demands it."

Hospital management maintains that the real issue is not over patient care and staffing, but over union organizing rights and a master contract that would allow the nurses association to talk with nurses at Sutter's nonunion facilities and let them vote on whether they want to be in a union.

"(The CNA) is using issues like staffing, patient care and lifting, but it really wants to push organizing rights and a master contract," Gomez said. Those organizing and master contract issues are subjects an employer is not required to bargain on in negotiations, and, therefore, cannot be the basis of a strike.

Officials at Sutter affiliates have long viewed the nurses association's mission as growing union membership.

Genel Morgan, a nurse at Peninsula Medical Center, emphasized that the strike isn't just about organizing rights. Though she admitted organizing rights are important, she held firm that the key is patient care, staffing and improving retirement and health benefits.

"We're doing what is necessary to get them back to the table to really negotiate," Morgan said. She added that management has "maintained a rigid line" in the two negotiating sessions since the last strike in December.

Gomez said she also wants to get back to negotiations.

The best scenario is getting back to the table," she said. "We have an excellent mediator."


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