UC healthcare workers vote to strike

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The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees 3299 announced Tuesday that its members voted to strike against the University of California for allegedly prioritizing profits over patient care.

The vote to strike — which passed with more than 97 percent support — comes after the university and the union failed to come to an agreement during ongoing contract negotiations, which began last June. The union alleges that the university’s prioritization of profits reduces patient-care quality, while the university argues that the strike is an attempt to gain bargaining leverage and divert attention from the union’s refusal of pension reforms during negotiations.

The suggested pension reforms include an increased contribution from both the university and employees toward the costs of pension benefits as well as revised eligibility rules for retirement health benefits, according to Shelly Meron, a media specialist with the UC Office of the President.

However, AFSCME, which represents nearly 13,000 patient-care workers from medical centers and student health centers across all 10 UC campuses, said the union is striking because the suggested pension reforms are another attempt by the university to maintain high-paying executive pensions. Representatives from AFSCME say those funds should instead be used for patient care.

“At this point, (the university has) certainly made clear they will not negotiate until we agree to protect their entitlements,” said AFSCME 3299 President Kathryn Lybarger. “Pension reform subsidizes their massive benefits. We are not going to stand for that.”

Such pensions and high-paying executive salaries have caused understaffing and cost-cutting in the UC medical system that is impacting the quality of patient care, said union spokesperson Todd Stenhouse.

The union says these new cuts and financial decisions have left the medical centers unable to provide the care patients deserve due to unnecessary stress and inadequate training on the use of hazardous materials in patient-care areas.

“The (university) needs to get its priorities straight,” Stenhouse said. “They need to stop this idea that executive salaries are their top fiscal priority … These are publicly funded hospitals that are here to serve California, and we are here to make sure they stay the crown jewels of the state.”

However, Meron asserts that the pension reforms are needed to ensure the university’s pension programs are financially sustainable.

“We are dealing with a $24 billion unfunded liability,” she said. “We want to make sure the (pension programs are) sustainable over time.”

In a press release from April, the university stated that AFSCME is trying to use patient care as a tool in contract negotiations, which can endanger the patients’ health. Meron said the university will prepare contingency plans for medical center operations — which include patient care — in case of a strike.

But a report published by AFSCME last month alleged that the UC hospitals have increased executive payroll by $100 million since 2009 and are the ones endangering patients by cutting care jobs and outsourcing them to less experienced workers.

The union is also preparing to take patient protection measures, including a 10-day notice of a strike and the formation of a Patient Protection Task Force in the event of an emergency.

The dates and duration of the union strike have not yet been finalized.

Alyssa Neumann covers city government. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter @AlyNeumann.

Clarification(s):
A previous version of this article may have implied that the University of California will prepare contingency plans for patients. In fact, the university will prepare contingency plans for medical center operations, which include patient care.

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the vote to strike came after the University of California and the union failed to come to an agreement during contract negotiations last June. In fact, the vote to strike comes after the university and union failed to come to an agreement during ongoing contract negotiations, which began last June.

A previous version of this article incorrectly quoted UC Spokesperson Shelly Meron as saying that the UC was dealing with a $22 million unfunded liability. In fact, the UC is dealing with at $24 billion unfunded liability.

A previous version of this article also incorrectly quoted Meron as saying that pension that the UC wants to make sure the UC medical centers are sustainable over time. In fact, she said that the university wanted to make sure that pension programs are sustainable over time.