Page One

Alta Bates nurses are ready for one-day strike

By David Scharfenberg, Daily Planet staff
Wednesday July 10, 2002

Nurses at four area hospitals, including Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley and Oakland, are planning a one-day strike July 19 after contract negotiations hit a brick wall this weekend. 

Alta Bates spokesperson Jill Gruen said the hospital may have to reduce services on the day of the strike. 

“It’s a normal process, hospitals are used to it,” said Charles Idelson, spokesperson for the California Nurses Association, which represents the nurses. Picketers will be available to work if a medical emergency arises, he said. 

The Nurses Association is seeking wage increases, a better retirement package and improved nurse-to-patient ratios at all four hospitals.  

The union is negotiating separate contracts with each of the hospitals, all owned by Sutter Health. Alta Bates talks are set to resume today, with a federal mediator present. 

Union officials say that good wages and benefits are needed for Sutter Health to attract nurses while a nurse shortage is affecting the country. 

“There’s a turnstile at the front of these hospitals,” said Idelson. “Unless we can address the downward spiral, hospitals are going to turn into dangerous medical factories.” 

Gruen said Alta Bates, which has about 200 unfilled nursing positions, is taking the issue seriously. 

“This is the most generous wages and benefit offer in Alta Bates and Summit history,” she said. 

Alta Bates is offering a 16 percent pay raise over three years. The union is asking for a 27 percent hike. 

Connie Arburua, an Alta Bates nurse on the union’s negotiating team, said that the 27 percent figure is “above average,” but not high enough to retain nurses. 

“We’re interested in stopping the hemorrhaging at Alta Bates and Summit,” she said. “The nurses are leaving.”  

Arburua pointed to a recently-negotiated 26 percent increase over three years at the Sutter-owned Mills-Peninsula hospitals in Burlingame and San Mateo as a precedent. 

In the 26 percent figure the union includes a 7.5 percent raise retroactive at the beginning of the year. Gruen says the true number is 19 percent and the Alta Bates offer is comparable. 

Arburua said the retirement package offered by the hospital – which includes pension and health care provisions – may be acceptable if Alta Bates agrees to provide acceptable health benefits for early retirees. 

Currently, the hospital is offering early retirees a maximum of $12,000 to spend on health insurance until they reach 65, when Medicare kicks in. 

“That’s not going to pay for much,” she said. 

Gruen said the Alta Bates offer is generous, and akin to what the Nurses Association has accepted in negotiations elsewhere. 

In January, Gov. Gray Davis announced preliminary, statewide nurse-to-patient ratios and the figures are currently moving through the regulatory and public comment process. 

The union wants to include those preliminary ratios in the Alta Bates contract. The hospital wants to wait until the state-mandated ratios are approved and is offering to form a management-labor committee, in the meantime, to discuss the issue. 

Gruen pointed out that the Nurses Association accepted this arrangement in the recently-signed University of California nurse’s contract. But Idelson said the comparison is unfair since UC hospitals tend to have better nursing rations than Alta Bates.  

The other three hospitals scheduled to take part in the July 19 strike are Eden Medical Center in Castro Valley, Sutter Solano Medical Center in Vallejo and St. Luke’s Hospital in San Francisco.