Alta Bates nurses strike for sixth time over contract reductions

Kayla Shapiro/Staff
Nurses strike at Alta Bates Summit Center to protest changes in their contract.

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Registered nurses at the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley went on their sixth strike Thursday, along with six other East Bay hospitals, in protest of contract negotiations with Sutter Health Corporation. The California Nurses Association’s strike is emblematic of its members’ ongoing discontentment with Sutter, which began contract negotiations with the group in May 2011. Talks came to an impasse in July, with nurses advocating for continuing their current contracts and Sutter contending that those contracts are no longer fiscally feasible.

Several hundred strikers — a group consisting of not only union members but also other hospital officials protesting in solidarity — picketed throughout the day, holding signs such as “RNs on Strike for Patient Care” under a banner that read “Sutter Greed Hurts Our Community.”

“Only four to five hundred people came,” said registered nurse Eric Koch, part of the negotiating team. “It was a bad turnout. We were expecting more.”

The first strikebegan in September 2011, and the most recent took place last July. At Thursday’s event, nurses took turns at the microphone, talking about issues ranging from the standstill of negotiations to the embittered advertising campaign between the two groups.

One main theme of the strike was the allegation that Sutter has been using inaccurate figures regarding nurses’ salaries and pensions in its advertisements.

Sutter cites that full-time nurses at Alta Bates earn an average of $136,000 per year with a pension of $84,000 per year. However, nurses at the strike contended that these numbers are not realistic due to the fact that they are calculated based on nurses who have worked full-time since their mid-20s.

“All of this rhetoric that has been given to the media — none of those numbers are true,” said Ellen Lyons, a registered nurse who has worked at Alta Bates Summit for 25 years.

Additionally, the strikers see Sutter as a large corporation with high salaries for its top officials and large profits.

“One has to question this corporation’s commitment to its community and to providing safe care,” said Liz Jacobs, a registered nurse and communications specialist at the National Nurses United. “It is a corporate health care model.”

However, Sutter contends that changes to the nurses’ contract, such as ending paid sick leave, health coverage cuts and reductions in pay, are necessary to achieve the goal of increasing affordability for its patients.

“Our current proposals — including an economic package made at least nine months ago — reflect the reality of economics at our hospital, in our communities and healthcare today,” said Carolyn Kemp, regional manager of communications and public relations at Alta Bates, in an email. “It also ensures that compensation for Alta Bates Summit RNs remains competitive in our market.”

Still, nurses worry that these cuts will sacrifice quality patient care, leading some to see Sutter as a corporate entity focused more on finances than on patients. Strikers said they have seen a decrease in serving the community and an increase in cutting costs since Sutter began managing Alta Bates in 1996.

As in previous strikes, Sutter brought in five-day contract replacement nurses, preventing strikers from returning to work for an additional four days.

According to Sutter, the replacement workers’ contracts request these five-day terms. This policy came under fire, however, in October 2011, when nurses filed a complaint in response to the five-day lockout during the Sept. 22 protest. The situation was exacerbated by the involvement of one of the replacement workers in the accidental death of a patient.

In late September, Sutter settled with another Bay Area hospital, Mills-Peninsula Health Services — showing that coming to an agreement between nurses and Sutter may be possible.

“We would like to see main table negotiations in Oakland with the Federal Mediator,” Koch said. “We have a basis to get back to the table and a basis for getting together.”

Contact Megan at [email protected].