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Nurses, Sutter Health Conflict over RN Strike Success

By Richard Brenneman
Friday April 04, 2008

The ten-day strike of registered nurses (RNs) at Sutter Health’s Bay Area hospitals ended Monday with the start of the 7 a.m. shift. 

Whether the walkout was a success or not depends on whom you ask. 

Also in question is just how many members of the California Nurses Association (CNA) honored the picket lines and how many crossed over to keep drawing their regular paychecks. 

RNs at Berkeley’s two Alta Bates Summit medical facilities—the Ashby Avenue medical center and Herrick Hospital—walked out with the morning shift March 21, CNA’s third action since talks with the nonprofit chain’s hospitals had reached an impasse. 

The CNA, which represents RNs, announced in advance that the walkout would last ten days, while the two earlier one-day walkouts were extended to five-day lockouts by Sutter, which said the extended period was needed to attract temporary replacements. 

RNs rank at the top of the nursing hierarchy and typically have more required coursework for their degrees and greater responsibilities for patient care. 

According to information furnished by Sutter media representative Kami Lloyd, only half of Berkeley’s nurses joined the walkout, the same 50 percent reported at Eden Medical Center. Only nurses at Antioch’s Sutter Delta Medical had a higher rate returning to work, with 57 percent of nurses working all their regular shifts. 

According to management, the most militant nurses were at California Pacific Medical Center with only one in three crossing the picket lines. Those numbers also include nurses for the affiliated St. Luke’s hospital. 

But the Sutter statement is couched in ambiguous language, and while it describes CNA members as RNs, it uses only the word “nurses” in describing those who crossed the picket lines. 

When questioned by e-mail if their figures for returning nurses included LVNs and others as well as RNs, Sutter didn’t respond. 

“That’s a good question,” said CNA spokesperson Shum Preston, himself an RN. “We don’t know if their numbers include LVNs and CNAs and others.” 

Preston said “crossing the picket line was very rare,” and said union representatives reported 95 percent participation by members at all the hospitals affected by the walkout.  

While CNA’s first walkout was supported by licensed vocational nurses and other workers belonging the United Health Care Workers West, a subsequent dispute between the two labor organizations has since blocked cooperation. 

The rival union’s parent, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), subsequently split from the AFL-CIO umbrella in July 2005, along with the powerful Teamsters, and the two hospital workers’ unions have emerged as bitter rivals nationally, where the CNA now organizes as the National Nurses Organizing Committee (NNOC). 

The NNOC has won votes in Nevada and Texas, becoming on March 29 in Houston the first union ever to win a hospital organizing election in the Lone Star State. 

CNA officials said the Sutter strike  

wasn’t about wages but about patient care standards and reductions in benefits, while Sutter charged that the walkout was about increasing union membership and clout. 

Sutter has insisted on separate contracts with member hospitals and hospital groups, and while CNA originally sought a master contract with the chain, the union subsequently shelved the demand. 

With neither side giving after the latest walkout, further walkouts could lie ahead. 

Sutter contends that five-year CNA members who work full-time evening shifts at Sutter’s Bay Area hospitals earn an average yearly pay of $142,350, premium-free health coverage for themselves and their families, a fully funded pension and supplemental health coverage during retirement. 

“Those numbers are pure fantasy,” said Preston. “We don’t know of a single nurse who makes that much. This just continues Sutter’s trend of lying about and attacking its own nurses.”