On the Picket Line

Nurses strike Sutter Health hospitals over wages, staffing

By Eric Simpson
January 9, 2023

OAKLAND, Calif. — Registered nurses hit the picket lines Christmas Eve in front of Sutter Health hospitals here and in Berkeley, launching a nine-day strike. The 1,800 members of the California Nurses Association voted to go on strike because the bosses’ proposed contract, while offering a 22.4% wage increase over four years, didn’t address staffing, safety and retirement concerns or keep their wages competitive with other area hospitals.

“The whole hospital is short-staffed,” RN Mike Hill, who works in the intensive care unit and is an on-the-job union representative, told the Militant on the picket line outside Sutter’s Alta Bates Summit Medical Center here. “It’s an every-shift thing. It affects the quality of care.”

“Even if the number of nurses in a unit is adequate,” Hill continued, “if ancillary [support] staff is lacking, the nurses’ workload increases.”

“The other day the hospital’s CEO, David Clark, went up to the fifth floor and started urging nurses to vote to approve the contract,” rehab nurse Sudi Azadeh said. “‘Don’t abandon the patients and go on strike,’ he told us. When we answered that they are hiring traveling nurses to cover for us, he complained that that was expensive!”

“If you don’t like it here, then leave,” the CEO told nurses, Azadah said, expressing the age-old contempt that bosses have for workers. “But when the proposed contract was put to the membership, while all the other Sutter units had approved the contract, we said no.” The CEO’s remark wound up on their picket signs, next to the union reply: “Nurses are not expendable!”

“The CEOs make big money but they won’t offer competitive wages or decent retirement,” Mary Thomas, a nurse who cares for cardiac and stroke patients, told the Militant. Since Sutter nurses are paid several dollars less per hour than Kaiser Permanente hospital nurses, many quit to work at the nearby competitor. “One of our biggest issues is nurse retention, which contributes to the severe staffing shortage threatening patient safety,” Leslie Blanchard, a Sutter nurse, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

“We are fighting to keep the Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley open,” Thomas said. “If they close it people in Berkeley will have to be transported to Oakland. When someone has a stroke, time is brain loss. The more time it takes to get to the hospital, the more brain damage you suffer.”

Sutter has said it will close its 300-bed Berkeley hospital by 2030 to avoid having to renovate it to comply with a state earthquake-safety law. That would leave only Kaiser’s 50-bed hospital in Richmond to serve the densely populated urban corridor north of Oakland, home to about 250,000 people and the Chevron oil refinery.