Understaffed and Unsafe, Bay Area Hospital Workers Strike
UPDATE, October 9: Striking workers at Alameda Health System are https://labornotes.org/blogs/2020/10/east-bay-health-care-workers-strike-forces-county-disband-bosscelebrating a victory in the midst of their strike, as the Board of Supervisors suddenly announced they would disband the unelected Board of Trustees that has long mismanaged this public safety-net health care system.
Workers at eight campuses of the Alameda Health System (AHS) in California’s East Bay will begin a five-day strike on October 7.
“We have a lack of leadership in the administration before the crisis that was just heightened during the crisis,” said Adrian Jackson, a respiratory therapist. “When we have to fight the administration it’s impossible for us to give 100 percent of our care and attention to the patients who desperately need us.”
The 3,200 members of Service Employees (SEIU) Local 1021 make up three bargaining units: nurses, advanced practitioners, and staffers such as housekeepers, technicians, social workers, food service workers, and many more. The vote was 98 percent for an unfair labor practice strike.
SEIU is alleging that management threatened employees with discipline if they struck, surveilled members who honored an earlier picket line, refused information requests, retaliated against certain workers who were organizing by laying them off, and issued a public statement against AHS chapter chair John Pearson claiming he was taking advantage of a public health crisis.
SEIU members will be joined on strike by 300 RNs in the California Nurses Association in an economic strike and by a small unit of Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) radiology techs in AHS who called a sympathy strike.
During SEIU’s last contract fight, in 2016-17, coming together proved difficult. Morale was low and the bargaining units were all operating separately, undercutting one another. Members complained about the lack of regular bargaining updates or transparency in negotiations. Union staffers ran the contract campaign in a way that was disconnected from members.
The members want this time to be different. They used Contract Action Teams to agitate members and get them ready to work together. They did surveys to find the issues members cared about most: safety and staffing. Solidarity was built when everyone agreed that a top priority was to bring the chapter’s newest unit, in San Leandro, up to the level of other units.
On day one of bargaining, AHS management announced it wanted to rewrite the contract to its benefit. Bargainers refused to put responses in writing and asked for 100 pages’ worth of givebacks.
These included a wage freeze, the reduction or outright elimination of shift differentials, deleting contract language that gives job security to full- and part-time as well as contract workers (instead allowing management to cancel shifts on the spot), an end to guaranteed hours, removing legally mandated (Title 22) nurse-to-patient ratios and staffing matrixes from the contract, eliminating the employer-paid education fund for free college or vocational training, and shortening the discipline process.
But that wasn’t all. As usual, management proved to be the best organizer—by coming after members’ health care plan. Currently workers enjoy a no-premium health care option (one of many). Management announced that starting in January, workers on that plan will have to pay 10 percent of the premium, a heavy lift for low-paid workers with dependents.
BLESSING IN DISGUISE
With the pandemic, union staffers aren’t allowed to enter Alameda Health buildings. That ended up being a blessing in disguise, said ER nurse John Pearson. Because the responsibility shifted to members themselves, “they got a crash course in organizing 24-7.”
The new momentum allowed members to circulate a petition of no confidence that asked the county to assume responsibility for the health care system. Half the membership signed swiftly, gathering around 1,700 signatures.
The Alameda Health System was run by the county till the late 1990s and funded through public money. Then legislation made AHS its own public sector entity, no longer funded by or under the jurisdiction of the county. Instead the county loans the health system money and forces AHS to pay the debt, and the only way the AHS board sees to pay the debt is through budget cuts.
“Management acts as if they are in the private sector and shouldn’t have to be accountable to anyone,” Pearson. “But they’re wrong. This is still a public entity.”
Another issue is that the AHS board of trustees and CEO are appointed by county elected officials, which insulates them from public accountability and engagement.
The members offered not to strike if the administration agreed to a county takeover, gave a cost-of-living increase, provided inexpensive resources homeless patients need such as clothing and shoes, and took all the givebacks off the table. Management refused.
SEIU believes that AHS has spent over $6 million on its last-minute hiring of scabs. The union agreed to let 88 key workers cross the picket lines—but because strike spirit is high, members are reluctant—“they want to strike!” Pearson said.
What would a win look like? “Winning looks like getting rid of management’s unfair takeaways,” Jackson said. “Clothing our patients in the ER before we send them out. Safe staffing levels. Allowing us to be in a position where we can take care of ourselves so we don’t have to worry and can care for our patients.”
See a cool strike dance video made by members here.
Contribute to the strike relief fund run by SEIU 1021 officers at gofundme.com/f/AHSStrikeRelief.