The PJ Tatler

Californians: Do Not Get Sick Between Thursday and Saturday, Because the Unions Are On the Move

I’m surprised that there’s so little news about an upcoming nurses’ strike in Northern and Central California. This story should be a big deal, in large part because the nurses who are going on strike in thirty-four Northern and Central California hospitals actually have no complaint. Instead, they’re putting thousands of patients at risk because their union wants to show its sympathy to another union (emphasis mine):

Thousands of registered nurses plan to walk off the job at 34 hospitals in northern and central California on Thursday in one of the largest such labor actions here in years.

Up to 23,000 nurses could be involved in strikes at Children’s Hospital Oakland and the large Sutter Health and Kaiser Permanente systems, union leaders said.

[snip]

Kaiser nurses signed a contract earlier this year, but they plan a sympathy strike Thursday to support members of the National Union of Healthcare Workers, who will walk off the job at Kaiser facilities in a separate contract dispute.

Here in Marin County, there are three hospitals: Kaiser in San Rafael, Sutter in Novato, and Marin General, which broke with Sutter a year or two back. For up to three days, starting Thursday morning, there will be only one fully functional hospital in Marin, a county with more than 250,000 residents (emphasis mine):

Workers at all of the North Bay Kaiser facilities will be striking, but consolidated picket lines will be held in Santa Rosa, San Rafael and Vallejo, NUHW spokesman Leighton Woodhouse said. The strike would include about 220 workers across the North Bay, at facilities in Marin, Sonoma, Napa and Solano counties.

The California Nurses Association, with some 17,000 registered nurses at Kaiser facilities, will join the union as part of a sympathy strike, according to NUHW, which will amount to the largest strike in Kaiser’s history. Workers will walk off the job for one-, two- and three-day durations from September 21 to 23.

What’s just as bad is the way in which the hospitals, which cannot take the risk of patients dying because of the strike, will have to cope with the nursing deficit. Kaiser, for example, is flying in strike-breakers, at a cost of $9,000 or so per strike-breaker. The deal with these fly-in nurses is that they insist upon receiving a five-day contract, even though this strike is projected to last only one to three days. While it would be impossible for Kaiser to have a replacement for each of the approximately 17,000 nurses on strike, the money Kaiser will be forced to pay out for this sympathy strike is outrageous.

Things are even more complicated than simply finding replacement nurses at incredible expense. Most of the hospitals involved now have very complicated computer systems that are custom designed for each hospital chain. These computer systems control everything: nurse’s notes, doctor’s notes, pharmacy, lab tests, treatments, billing — you name it, it’s all computerized. What these means is that hospitals are no longer fungible. In the old days, a chart was a chart, and that was true whether you were in a hospital in Schenectady or San Francisco. Nowadays, though, nurses have to understand computer systems that are unique to a given hospital. That nurse who’s been flown in from out-of-state doesn’t know Kaiser’s or Sutter’s computer system. For those nurses, it’s like having to fly a 747 when you’ve only flown a Piper before.

And again, let me remind you that the nurses aren’t walking off the job to improve their own working situation. This is all about union solidarity. So, my advice to you, if you live in the San Francisco Bay Area and the northern parts of Central California is to play it safe starting Thursday. Even if your hospital isn’t one of the ones dealing with a strike, it might be feeling awfully overwhelmed. If you were thinking of doing some DIY work with power tools, hold off a few days. If you were planning on sending your kids to a park with lots of monkey bars, send them out to play on the lawn instead, or maybe just plunk them in front of the television. For the latter part of this coming week, you can’t be too safe.

Cross-posted at Bookworm Room