WORKERS at eight campuses of the Alameda Health System (AHS) in California’s East Bay – 3,200 members of the SEIU union local 1021 – are to begin a five-day strike action.
The vote in favour of action was 98 per cent for an unfair labour practice strike.
The 3,200 members of Service Employees (SEIU) Local 1021 make up three bargaining units: nurses, advanced practitioners, and staffers such as housekeepers, technicians, social workers, food service workers, and many more.
‘We had a lack of leadership in the administration before the crisis that was just heightened during the crisis,’ said Adrian Jackson, a respiratory therapist.
‘When we have to fight the administration it’s impossible for us to give 100 per cent of our care and attention to the patients who desperately need us.’
SEIU is alleging that management threatened employees with discipline if they struck, surveilled members who honoured an earlier picket line, refused information requests, retaliated against certain workers who were organising by laying them off, and issued a public statement against the union’s AHS chapter chair John Pearson, who is also an ER nurse, claiming he was taking advantage of a public health crisis.
SEIU members will be joined on strike by 300 RNs in the California Nurses Association in an economic strike and by a small unit of Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) radiology techs in AHS who called a sympathy strike.
During SEIU’s last contract fight, in 2016-17, coming together proved difficult. Morale was low and the bargaining units were all operating separately, undercutting one another.
Members complained about the lack of regular bargaining updates or transparency in negotiations. Union staffers ran the contract campaign in a way that was disconnected from members.
The members want this time to be different. They used Contract Action Teams to agitate members and get them ready to work together. They did surveys to find the issues members cared about most: safety and staffing.
Solidarity was built when everyone agreed that a top priority was to bring the chapter’s newest unit, in San Leandro, up to the level of other units.
On day one of bargaining, AHS management announced it wanted to rewrite the contract to its benefit. Bargainers refused to put responses in writing and asked for 100 pages’ worth of ‘givebacks’, i.e. removal of existing terms and conditions.
These included a wage freeze; the reduction or outright elimination of shift differentials; deleting contract language that gives job security to full- and part-time as well as contract workers (instead of allowing management to cancel shifts on the spot); an end to guaranteed hours, removing legally mandated (Title 22) nurse-to-patient ratios and staffing matrixes from the contract; eliminating the employer-paid education fund for free college or vocational training; and shortening the discipline process.
But that wasn’t all. As usual, management proved to be the best organiser – by coming after members’ health care plan.
Currently workers enjoy a no-premium health care option (one of many). Management announced that, starting in January, workers on that plan will have to pay 10 per cent of the premium: a heavy lift for low-paid workers with dependants.
With the pandemic, union staffers aren’t allowed to enter Alameda Health buildings. That ended up being a blessing in disguise, said ER nurse John Pearson, because the responsibility shifted to members themselves.
‘They got a crash course in organising 24-7.’
The new momentum allowed members to circulate a petition of no confidence that asked the county to assume responsibility for the health care system. Half the membership signed swiftly, gathering around 1,700 signatures.
The Alameda Health System was run by the county till the late 1990s, and funded through public money. Then legislation made AHS its own public sector entity, no longer funded by or under the jurisdiction of the county.
Instead, the county lends the health system money and forces AHS to pay the debt, and the only way the AHS board sees to pay the debt is through budget cuts.
Pearson observed: ‘Management acts as if they are in the private sector and shouldn’t have to be accountable to anyone.
‘But they’re wrong. This is still a public entity.’
Another issue is that the AHS board of trustees and CEO are appointed by county elected officials, which insulates them from public accountability and engagement.
The members offered not to strike if the administration agreed to a county takeover, gave a cost-of-living increase, provided inexpensive resources to homeless patients in need such as clothing and shoes, and took all the givebacks off the table.
SEIU now believes that AHS has spent over $6 million on its last-minute hiring of scabs. The union agreed to let 88 key workers cross the picket lines – but because strike spirit is high, members are reluctant – ‘They want to strike!’ Pearson said.
What would a win look like?
‘Winning looks like getting rid of management’s unfair takeaways,’ Adrian Jackson said. ‘Clothing our patients in the ER before we send them out. Safe staffing levels. Allowing us to be in a position where we can take care of ourselves so we don’t have to worry and can care for our patients.’
- Under the heading: Trump Once Again Gives Up on Working People October 6, 2020, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has released a statement on President Trump’s calling off Covid-19 relief talks until after the November 3rd presidential election:
‘To every single working person out there: Your president has given up on you. America’s labour movement never will. Donald Trump has ordered everyone to stop negotiations on the HEROES Act, which would extend unemployment benefits to millions, implement a strong federal workplace infectious disease standard and provide money to states for critical services.
Donald Trump’s ship is sinking. And he wants to take the rest of the country down with him. Working people deserve leaders who will fight for us in the toughest of times; and the entire Trump administration, every Republican in the Senate and all their anti-worker allies have shown us exactly how they feel about working families. They’re willing to let us suffer for political theatre. I have never seen such dereliction of duty in my life.’