UPDATED: Alta Bates Nurses Revolt

California Nurses Association members struck in October at the Alta Bates Ashby campus in Berkeley. They may return to the picket line on Christmas Eve to stop two-tier pensions.

[UPDATE, January 20, 2023: Alta Bates nurses returned to work on January 2 after striking for nine days over the Christmas and New Year holidays. They have not been contacted by management for a bargaining date since before management's "last, best and final offer" was voted down, December 21. Managers have been encouraging nurses to accept the offer during charge nurse meetings on the hospital floor.

Nurse leaders at Alta Bates, including negotiating team member Eric Koch, sent a letter to the California Nurses Association Board of Directors on January 2 outlining allegations against CNA staff. The letter asks for action to be taken against staff reps who the letter alleges have been colluding with Sutter management and undermining not only Alta Bates nurses, but also the efforts of different Sutter hospital nurse negotiating committees to communicate and work together. Koch alleges that CNA has tried to frame efforts for transparency and nurse leadership as "anti-union" and "union-busting."

In a letter obtained by Labor Notes, the legal director of CNA offers a hearing for the Alta Bates negotiating team to bring evidence to the CNA Board of Directors for these claims.]

Nurses at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center are set to vote on a tentative contract agreement on December 21, ahead of their Christmas Eve strike date. The problem? The negotiating committee of elected nurses is unanimous in its rejection of what Summit management says is its “last, best, and final” offer.

Vocal member leaders at the Oakland-area complex allege that California Nurses Association (CNA) staff are ignoring the objections of the negotiating team and pushing a bad agreement on the members.

Notably, while many nurses have been making gains at the bargaining table, the Alta Bates tentative agreement includes concessions, including the loss of the defined-benefit pension plan for new hires, who would be moved to a “cash balance design.”

The raises in the offer, 22 to 25 percent over four years, would still leave most members earning several dollars less per hour than nurses at nearby Kaiser Permanente hospitals, making it hard to retain staff.

Members conducted short strikes in April and October, and voted in favor of a third strike, to start December 24 and run nine days. The timing may give them leverage, as hospital management will have to hire traveling nurses who may not want to work during the holidays, particularly while respiratory viruses are filling hospitals with patients.

BARGAINING TEAM IN THE DARK

Thorild Urdal, a labor and delivery nurse with 40 years of experience at Alta Bates, says this isn’t the first nasty surprise. She said she was on the bargaining committee when the contract expired January 31, 2020. CNA staff agreed to a contract extension without notifying the bargaining team, she said. Now they’ve been actively bargaining for 18 months.

Urdal, a former CNA staffer, is disgusted that union staff would push a vote for a two-tier pension plan. “It messes with unity!” she said. Conditions are so bad, she noted, that “nurses who we love and train… leave for Kaiser as soon as they can.”

“We went on strikes for a pension in the years past,” said Eric Koch, an ICU step-down unit nurse at Alta Bates and a member of the negotiating team. “The older nurses remember—we fought for that.”

COORDINATION?

CNA staff had argued that the 2020 contract extension was needed to line up Alta Bates’ expiration date with the expirations at other Sutter facilities in Northern California. Indeed, 8,000 Sutter nurses walked out in April on a one-day strike, including the nurses at Alta Bates.

Urdal says she and others tried to reach out to nurses at other Sutter facilities to create rank-and-file connections across the network, but were told by CNA staff that they weren’t allowed to do that.

While locked in battle with their employer, Alta Bates members have also been pressuring their union.

Urdal and Koch were part of a delegation that visited the home of CNA Executive Director Bonnie Castillo in September. Representing the bargaining team, Professional Practice Committee, and nurse reps (similar to stewards) they brought 695 “strike ready” cards signed by their colleagues.

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In a letter they outlined grievances with CNA staff and pleaded for Castillo to intervene, and live up to the union’s values of transparency and democracy. They objected to CNA staff approving the contract extension without consultation, holding Zoom membership meetings but disabling the chat, prohibiting members from writing their own bargaining updates, stopping members from different Sutter facilities from communicating, and requiring additional strike votes.

By the fall of 2022, though, the 16 other Sutter facilities in the coordinated bargaining effort had mostly settled their contracts—leaving Alta Bates to strike alone for five days in October. But that walkout didn’t yield a tentative agreement either.

The negotiating team, made up of eight nurses from Alta Bates sites, saw little movement by management towards its proposals to attract and retain staff through pay raises that could make the employer competitive with nearby Kaiser Permanente hospitals.

CNA itself recently settled with Kaiser, winning 22.5 percent raises over four years and a commitment to hire 2,000 more nurses to address understaffing. And nurses at nearby Stanford Health, whose independent union is called CRONA, led a week-long open-ended strike in April and won a contract that included raises of 17 percent over three years, plus staffing language related to patient “acuity” (workers with sicker patients would have fewer to care for).

Hospitals have not been winning two-tier contracts and major concessions recently. Kaiser Permanente proposed two-tier wages to the Alliance of Healthcare Unions in 2021; new hires would persist on a lower earnings rung than current workers. But that was defeated after a massive coordinated strike vote by 35,000 Alliance members.

DO WE GET A VOTE?

Sutter management contacted CNA on Saturday, December 17, with a “last, best, and final” offer, sweetened with an additional bonus. Management said the bonus offer would expire at 5 a.m. Tuesday morning.

CNA reps set up six membership zoom meetings over Sunday and Monday to present the “final” offer and hear from members. Sutter had only sent the proposals to CNA staff, not the negotiating team.

One nurse, a 12-year Labor and Delivery veteran, said the meetings made her feel that “our representation is siding with our employer.” After hearing a proposal to agree to the deal by 5 a.m. Tuesday, this nurse asked the CNA staff if they could legally push through a contract without a vote from the membership.

The nurse said the CNA staff member responded that she was not a legal professional and could not promise definitively that the deal would be put to a vote. The L&D nurse said members on the call erupted in frustration and anger.

Reportedly, CNA staff then said they would need to consult with the negotiating team. Michael Hill and Eric Koch, members of the team, spoke up on the call to say the team unanimously rejected the deal.

Within a couple of hours, CNA announced the ratification vote of the whole contract to take place electronically on Wednesday, December 21. Members received texts from CNA soon after, touting the economic gains in the contract. A 29-page email was sent to the membership that night—the first time that members had seen the whole tentative agreement.

The L&D nurse says she will be voting no. “Not because of the wages, but the takeaways they haven’t even talked about!” she said. “What is the rush? It’s for Sutter’s benefit to rush,” so management doesn’t don’t have to prepare for the December 24 strike.

The vote for the Christmas Eve strike was 97 percent in favor, though turnout was considerably lower than in earlier strike votes this year, with less than half the membership voting. It’s not clear if lower voter participation is representative of the membership’s enthusiasm to strike, though.

Members said CNA staff have not been involved in preparing members for a strike. But Koch said the negotiating team isn’t worried as they are well-practiced in striking and believe the membership is with them.

Labor Notes reached the California Nurses Association for comment, but they declined, citing our short deadline.

Sarah Hughes is a staff writer and organizer at Labor Notes.sarah@labornotes.org