A strike by nurses and other patient care workers at University of California (UC) hospitals and medical centers entered its second and final day Wednesday, despite efforts by the California Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) to block some employees from participating. UC officials said it would “threaten public health and safety,” the SF Appeal reported this week. The dispute involves over 12,500 employees, who are represented by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Union (AFSCME). Hundreds of members of the University Professional and Technical Employees Union threatened to join in a one-day sympathy strike on Wednesday.
According to AFSCME officials, the PERB injunction only barred around 120 employees from participating. Almost twenty-four of them had already been exempted from striking under the union’s “Patient Protection Task Force,” which allowed them to cross the picket line to help maintain emergency patient care.
UC officials predictably condemned the strike, saying it would cost them $20 million “to ensure patient safety” for two days, while completely ignoring how their own policies endanger patient safety every day of the year. Some of these policies include downsizing patient care staff, which reduces the ratio of nurses to patients. It has also resulted in a reduction in the Lift Teams used to shift immobilized patients in order to reduce bed sores and increase circulation. This is one of the more dangerous responsibilities of patient care workers because of the risk of lower back and other injuries and it becomes even more risky when there aren’t enough staff members to do it safely.
In an attempt to vilify the union and turn public sentiment against them, senior vice president for health sciences and services, Dr. John Stobo, said “It is completely inappropriate to threaten services to patients as a negotiating tactic—the health of our patients must not be held hostage.” Another official said that the staffing reductions were an inevitable consequence of revenue losses stemming from Obamacare (or the Affordable Health Care Act), which is reducing Medicare and Medical payments. Yet, according to one union member, the university’s hospitals have been making over $100 million in profits every year for the past 15 years (KPFA Morning News, 5/22/13), while administrative salaries have soared. In reality, the cuts have far more to do with maintaining high profits and administrative salaries and have been a far bigger threat to patient health and safety than a short, two-day strike.
While health care workers, like teachers and many other public sector workers, do provide essential health and safety services, this cannot be used to compel them to work under dangerous conditions that threaten their own health and safety. Wage workers have little freedom in the long term (one must work for wages in this society in order to feed one’s family)—hence the term Wage Slave. However, they do (at least in theory) have the right to withhold their labor in order to fight for better, safer working conditions, unlike chattel slaves, who could be beaten or killed for such impudence. According to Dr. Stobo, however, hospital workers do not even have this right because of their role in maintaining patient health and safety. (Similar arguments have been made to ban teachers’ strikes). Yet, if we take this argument to its logical conclusion (i.e., that patient health and safety trump all us), health care should be provided free of charge to everyone, since profit- and insurance-based healthcare result in thousands of preventable and premature deaths each year. Likewise, hospitals should be required to provide all necessary services to maintain both patients’ and workers’ health and safety, and not be permitted to reduce these services either to maintain profits or administrators’ bloated salaries.
UC and AFSCME have failed to come to an agreement on several contractual issues, including staffing ratios and the demand that workers pay more toward their pension plans. Unfortunately, a limited two-day strike is unlikely to cause enough pain to compel the bosses to concede to the workers. To make matters worse, many employees crossed the picket lines, including AFSCME members. The Los Angeles Times reported that 601 AFSCME members crossed the picket line at UCSF Medical Center and UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital, out of 1,095 scheduled to work, a solidarity rate of less than 50%.