Northern California nurses strike for safety, hiring, higher pay

By Eric Simpson
May 2, 2022
Nurses locked out for five days at 15 Sutter Health facilities after one-day strike April 18. Above, nurses on picket line at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland.
Militant/Eric SimpsonNurses locked out for five days at 15 Sutter Health facilities after one-day strike April 18. Above, nurses on picket line at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Oakland.

OAKLAND, Calif. — When nurses and other health care workers organized a one-day strike at 15 Sutter Health facilities across Northern California April 18, part of their nearly yearlong fight for a new contract, hospital bosses locked out the 8,000 union members for five days. The lockout of the California Nurses Association and affiliate Caregivers and Healthcare Employees Union was announced while the strike was going on.

“They have locked us out until Saturday at 7 a.m.,” Michael Hill, a registered nurse and chief nurses’ representative at the Sutter Alta Bates Summit Medical Center here, told dozens of strikers rallying outside the hospital. “Nobody goes back until we all go back together! Our power is in being united!”

Bosses say they will keep their facilities open, using temporary personnel.

The chief issues are more staffing, better working conditions, more input on supplies of Personal Protective Equipment, higher pay and respect.

Union members voted to authorize the strike in March. “Sutter called us to negotiate the contract, but they came three hours late,” Hill told the crowd. “This pattern was repeated at their other hospitals. Instead of proposals, they presented ‘Supposals’ — ‘Suppose we did this, what would you do?’

“So what are we going to do? We are striking! Why are we here today? Staffing! Every day we come to work we are short-staffed,” he said. “There is not enough staff to work relief, so nurses end up working through their breaks.

“They want total control over our lives. They are proposing that we could be forced onto a 12-hour schedule with no overtime pay until after 40 hours. … They are interested in the million dollars this will put in their pockets,” Hill said. Sutter, which claims to be a nonprofit, “made $10 billion in 2021. Their top executives make $18.5 million a year. But they propose to give us 2% annual raises each year for the next three years,” not even close to covering inflation.

In calling the strike, the California Nurses Association put out a press release to the public April 8. “We have a moral and legal obligation to advocate for our patients,” said RN Amy Erb, who works in critical care at Sutter’s California Pacific Medical Center. “We advocate for them at the bedside, at the bargaining table, and if we have to, on the strike line.”

Nurses on the picket line held up a big photo of Janine Paiste-Ponder, a nurse at the Alta Bates hospital, who died of COVID-19 in July 2020 because of lack of PPE. N95 masks were kept locked up, the union said. Paiste-Ponder had only a less-protective surgical mask to wear, as was company policy.

The California Division of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the hospital over $150,000 for her death and other violations of infectious disease control standards.

“Sutter calls us heroes, but if they really meant it we wouldn’t be out here,” retired RN Paula Lyn told the strikers. “Nurses, we are not martyrs. We did not sign up to sacrifice our lives.”

The last time the nurses struck at Sutter was in 2012. The contract wasn’t settled until the next year.