The union representing University of California patient-care employees staged a two-day strike across the five UC medical centers last week, disrupting care for patients and costing the university millions of dollars. The vast majority of union-represented staff members scheduled to work showed up to do their jobs nonetheless, while picketers shouted through bullhorns that they cared most about patient care.
This simply doesn’t make sense.
How does forcing hospitals to delay or cancel surgeries and treatments for patients help them? How does turning away ambulances from emergency rooms serve anyone’s needs? Does putting patients and their families in the middle of a labor contract dispute benefit anybody.
Negotiations about labor issues belong at the bargaining table, but last December, after refusing to counter with any alternatives to the university’s offer of salary increases and continued benefits, leaders of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees walked away, declaring an impasse.
This impasse is about the university’s pension reform — necessary and prudent changes that already apply to 14 other bargaining units as well as faculty and nonrepresented employees. AFSCME has simply said no to the university, even though other AFSCME workers are part of the less generous pension reform instituted by the state of California for government employees.
Instead, AFSCME called a strike at university medical centers and student health facilities and characterized it as a protest over patient care. They asked union service workers and members of the University Professional and Technical Employees to strike in solidarity. AFSCME leaders allege that their members are underpaid and overworked because hospital administrators are cutting staff.
Let’s look at the facts.
Some AFSCME patient-care employees earn average salaries of more than $90,000 per year, and the average annual salary of all patient-care employees at UC medical centers is more than $55,000. We’re offering qualified employees in this bargaining unit raises of up to 3.5 percent in each of the next four years on top of the 5 percent raises they’ve already received in each of the past two years — at a time when many other UC employees received no increases. In addition, patient care-employees receive excellent health benefits as well as pension and retiree health benefits that very few other employers offer.
AFSCME claims that staffing levels at UC medical centers have been reduced to levels so dangerously low that they threaten patient care. The fact is that UC has actually increased the number of its patient care employees by 1,249 during the past three years. Additionally, all medical centers, including the university’s, are highly regulated and must meet stringent federal and state standards of care in order to operate. All five UC medical centers are regularly ranked among the best hospitals in the world for their excellent patient care. It simply isn’t possible to be recognized for outstanding patient care year after year if you’re endangering patients.
We have spent many hours over the past year negotiating in good faith with AFSCME. We have been through state-assisted mediation. We have repeatedly offered the union what we think are very fair proposals, all of which have been rejected.
We believe we have done everything we can on our side of these negotiations. The fact that more than three-quarters of the union workers called upon to strike instead chose to come to work and care for patients speaks to their professionalism and dedication. Such reasonableness should send a message. But by all indications, including this recent strike, it appears that the AFSCME leadership is unwilling to compromise at all.
Dwaine Duckett is vice president for systemwide human resources at the University of California.